Mar 30, 2013

"Guevara" shu

(It should be green tea season. Yet I'm still drinking shu here... Some of my new Da Fo Long Jing arrived at JFK a week ago, yet the box hasn't gone through the customs yet. Customs delay happens from time to time, and usually it's at the most 2 weeks. But when it happens to your express mail parcel that costs premium postage, it's a bit annoying. And when this kind of thing happens in the green tea season, it's a bit more annoying. Oh well, let's hope it will arrive soon! And after reading this teahat discussion last week, I just feel that, delayed or not, as long as my 5 cute teapots in that box arrive safe, I would be totally happy! Fingers crossed, toes crossed.)

How I found this tea was totally uninteresting... But I would tell anyway... I saw its flashy advertisement while casually browsing taobao. There are always tons of puerh advertising there. This one caught my attention because it has Guevara on the wrapper. I know... it's rather shallow to buy a tea based on its wrapper. I could add that a friend of mine, a long-term shu drinker also mentioned to me he liked this tea very much (both for its price and for its quality). But to tell you the truth, this friend only drinks shu, and hadn't influenced me into buying any other shu. So basically, I was indeed influenced by the wrapper :-p And I was doing the opposite of what I wrote before about not trusting small producers' shu too easily...

I always love the image of Guevara, and own a bunch of Guevara logo t-shirts and notebooks. This is probably not just based on Guevara himself and the history surrounding him. To me, he symbolizes youth, idealism, energy, enthusiasm, courage, romance and some aspect of Latin American culture that I always fancy. So basically, Guevara image is always uplifting to me.

The tea is advertised to be from a Bulang Mountain abandoned tea plantation - usually this means the tea trees are on the bigger side of plantation tea trees and are not harvested as heavily as regular plantation tea.

The tea leaves look pretty nice.

The tea is not stinky - which is always important for a shu! Besides, the liquor has a nice smooth, soupy texture. It also has some nice aftertaste, which most shu is short of. While drinking this tea, I felt very satisfied, to a level that surprised me, because I didn't expect such an inexpensive tea from an unknown producer to be so nice. It's a 1kg big brick. So I was glad that I totally enjoyed it. Otherwise what am I going to do with such a big brick! After drinking this tea for a few times, I stocked up several bricks for future drinking - to me, stocking up 1kg bricks is big commitment.  

The spent leaves look quite nice too. Most leaves look like grade 6-7. On their website, the producer claimed that the amount of stems used was to make the tea smoother and sweeter, which is plausible to me. The producer also claims that they use modern methods to keep the sanitary level of their products. This tea indeed looks quite clean.

I drank my favorite 421 brick right after this tea, to experience the distance between the two. This tea doesn't have the depth and nice aftertaste of 421 brick (in fact very few shu I tasted has it anyway). But this tea doesn't taste bad even in front of the 421 brick. 

With this tea, I also got a bunch of samples from the producer. So far, none of the sheng samples I've tried is exciting at all - they are not really bad and not bad at all for their prices, but I'm totally unexcited about them. But there is another shu sample that is also quite nice.

I shared this tea with my Irish roommate who had never had puerh before, and she enjoyed it very well. This was very encouraging for me to consider using this tea as an "education material" for shu. I have been looking for some shu as sort of "education material", because many new puerh drinkers have yet to taste some non-stinky shu and some even wonder if there is such a thing as non-stinky shu. But the problem is, if a tea is used as an "education material", it had better be free. Meantime, it can't be a bad tea. It's not easy to find a tea that's both worth the time and is affordable for me to give out for free. Besides, from tea drinker's point of view, I also believe an "education material" should be inexpensive, because a good and inexpensive tea will help you evaluate if a more expensive tea is worth its price. This tea is not expensive at all, yet it's somewhat interesting. So I feel it's worth distributing and I can afford it!

Besides, these a couple of days, I have been thinking, maybe giving out some tea will help me raise tea karma and promote the survival chance of my teapots from JFK :-D

So I plan to give out seven 20g packs of this tea to blog readers. The requirement is the person has made a comment on this blog before the end of March 2013 (not necessarily this post, any post on this blog is ok). Interested blog readers can email me at gingkoheight at gmail with your address. This time, I can only ship to US addresses (sorry for excluding Canadian addresses due to the recent USPS postage rise).

People who are interested yet can't get it this time, please stay tuned. I plan to put some packs of this tea in the web store and I promise to make it *almost* like free. I don't plan to carry this tea as a profitable product, because it doesn't make much sense to store and sell inexpensive, heavy, space-filling shu bricks in America. Therefore, as long as it's offered (in small packs) in our web store, it will be offered at a price close to zero. 

Besides, if you would like to buy this tea directly from taobao, feel free to email me for the website of this producer. I won't be involved as a purchase agent, and don't know if they will maintain the same quality for all the batches (they have made several batches already for this tea and so far all the batches seem good). So I'm not posting the link here. But I will be happy to send the link through private messages. I do think it's worth buying from taobao if you like it. The 1kg size is a bit inconvenient for international shipping. But if you like the tea and can get good shipping rate, it could be a good deal.

Mar 22, 2013

looking for 421s...

I generally don't have too much passion for shu puerh. But this CNNP 2002 "golden brick" is one of my favorite so far. My other favorite is the "spouse" of a favorite sheng of mine from Yi Ru Chang. But this CNNP 2002 is more classic and has experienced more examination throughout time. So I would give it more credit.

This brick was compressed in recent years with 2002 stock of 421s. This is where I learned of 421s, a discontinued CNNP product - and I don't get it why CNNP would discontinue such a good product while it's producing so many mediocre teas. Now I'm looking for 421s, because this brick went out of stock from my supplier.

On one hand, the name of 421s is not very well-known nowadays among consumers. On the other hand, some boutique producers (such as the famous or infamous Changtai) made their own "421" products, which more or less reflected their admiration to this tea. But none of them is the same as 421s, and almost all of them are a lot more expensive than 421s - because they are boutique teas, I guess...

Similar to other more commonly seen mark numbers of big factories such as 7542, 8972 etc., 421s is a mark number. "s" represent "shu"; "1" represent Kunming Factory, the "home" factory of CNNP. "4" and "2" indicate this tea is a blend of grade 4 to grade 2 leaves, generally quite high grades for puerh tea. Some say "1" indicates there is first grade tea blended in too. I don't know which saying is more accurate, but think that's possible too, because another loose shu, Y562, is from Kunming Factory too, yet it doesn't end with "1". Some say "4" represents a formula number. Some say "4" represents the tea was invented in 1974. And even the older CNNP people have different sayings about this mark number. I believe the saying of "grade 4 to grade 2 leaves blended" is closer to truth, because this tea is a blend, not a purely grade 2 tea. But it's highly possible that this tea was invented around 1974, and many people believe it was THE first shu ever. Yet CNNP chose to discontinue this tea... I can't think of a logic reason for that!

The package is nothing special. The "golden brick" in its name indicates it has a lot of golden buds. 

Many golden buds...

First of all, this tea satisfies my basic requirement from a shu - not stinky. (Don't laugh at my low standards... it's not always easy for me to find shu that's not stinky at all by my senses...) Furthermore, it has layers of flavors and nice aftertastes that are rarely seen from shu puerh. To some degree, this tea changed my view of shu (but still, I'm generally not so excited about shu...)

I got this tea in 2009, and was told it was made of 421s. That's the first time I experienced 421s. Shortly after, in a conversation with a highly-experienced tea professional who had quite a few years of work experience in CNNP, he said, "You kids just don't know about many good products from the old days of big factories... For example, teas like 421, 671 and 562, people don't even talk much about them these days!" He shared with us some 421 and 671 from his own storage, which was quite an eye-opening experience. That was my second encounter with 421.

There are many puerh professionals who firmly believe shu made of higher grade leaves would have better long-term outcome, while products made of lower grade leaves (such as the classic 7581) could also be great but more suitable for sooner consumption. I don't have enough experience in shu to judge this opinion. But since 421, I'm very willing to believe this claim. A few years ago, I read from a Shi Kunmu article that he found a 7262 (another shu with relatively higher grade leaves) dry-stored in Malaysia had a wonderful taste that almost resembled taste of old sheng. I thought this was a very impressive comment on a good shu. Although shu was invented to mimic old sheng, rarely anybody, whether enjoying shu or not, would think the taste of shu could be comparable to old sheng. In my value system, if a shu could be compared to an old sheng, then it has probably reached the highest state of shu. I like 7262 very well too, but don't yet have such wonderful experience as Shi Kunmu's. But since 421, I'm very willing to believe Shi Kunmu's description on his experience of dry-aged 7262 is quite fair.

Probably it's because I'm getting older now, with a weaker body system that demands milder tea... I've been drinking slightly more shu than a few years ago. I will soon write about another shu that I think interesting - and that one, I guess many people, including people who don't usually drink shu, will find it interesting :-D

Mar 16, 2013

tea for drinking and tea for collection

Extra notes: Just because a tea has a wrapper that looks the same as this one, it does NOT necessarily mean it is the same tea. Due to the chaotic system of CNNP, I myself have quite a few teas of this same wrapper (such as the two mentioned here) and I'm sure you would see many more out there. They could be completely different.


Here, "collection" specifically refers to the investment kind of collection. Ideally, we would like to have puerh that's both tasty for drinking and of collection value - not that each drinker plans to sell it in the future, but it doesn't hurt if it could be exchanged for cash at ay time in the future. I guess most drinkers take puerh for drinking and not for collection. I also believe it's not practical for most tea drinkers to take puerh as an investment, which I will explain later in this post. 

I should also mention that I'm not a puerh collector and don't plan to be one, because, it's too much work... to be a collector, you've got to be an expert of the tea, the storage, market prediction, investment mentality... all of these fields! So the points about tea collection discussed here stay at a very basic level.

The conversation about tea for drinking and tea for collection was triggered by a question from a tea friend. Recently a tea friend asked me that besides the supplier's information, if there is something in the tea package of my 1998 7542 that indicates it's from Menghai Factory and not any other CNNP factory. I've got quite a few similar questions in the past, and have to admit that I didn't bother to answer each of them, especially on online tea forums. You can't possibly attend to every question, and I would always give priority to more personal communications.

Now back to my friend's question, is there something in the tea package that indicates the origin of the tea? Actually there isn't much, and that's basically why this 1998 tea is less expensive than most pre-2005 Dayi sheng with Dayi trademark.

However, indeed there are small marks here and there showing the origin of this tea. I don't think my supplier determined this tea is 7542 just by tasting and leaf anatomy - I don't believe 7542 has the so-called consistent anatomy throughout years, and my supplier is not one of those fairy men who can taste-distinguish everything. Generally speaking, CNNP had a lot of products from different factories of similar packaging, as described in an earlier blog post here. One of the tea showed in that post is his 7542, and another one with almost identical wrapper is something completely different. For many of these products, the only way to separate one from another from the outlook is not by the tea packaging itself, but by the packaging of tongs and big boxes (or bamboo buckets). This tea has a "big ticket" (ticket for each big box of jian, or 42 tea cakes) of Menghai Factory, which I didn't get. By the time I put my hands on this tea, there wasn't a whole box for me. The bamboo tong also has a 7542 stamp on it, which I took a photo to send to my friend. For those of you who have been wondering it, you've got to forgive me for not showing the photo earlier. I really don't think a photo of a stamp means a whole lot. I could easily visualize an artist friend of mine could carve an identical stamp out of a potato with a kitchen knife ;-) For the same reason, I didn't bother to save a photo of the jian ticket from the supplier - that cheap-looking printing from state-owned era... one could make a much "authentic-looking" one if one really means to fake one.

Then why would I trust that my supplier didn't fake his jian ticket and didn't stamp every tong with a potato stamp? To me it wasn't a hard judgment. First of all I've known this supplier for years and got some nice teas from him. Secondly, just by common sense, he didn't sell this tea for any price more than a good dry-stored 10-year-old sheng that doesn't have a 7542 title. Basically, this tea is mostly sold to people who buy tea to drink, and not tea collectors, because savvy collectors of Dayi puerh would take tea with well-documented packaging and/or trademarks only.

So this tea, and a bunch of other pre-2000 CNNP teas, are examples that demonstrate the difference between tea for drinking and tea for collection. Last year, in my conversation with an experienced puerh collector, he pointed out another consideration that tea collectors may want to keep in mind.

For large factory teas with mark numbers, such as 7542, 7262, etc., this experienced collector suggested to choose the first batch of a year (such as 801 from 2008) over a later batch of a year (such as 808 from 2008). At the beginning, I was a little confused, "aren't 801 batch and 808 batch supposed to be pretty much the same?" He said, "technically speaking, they are either same or almost same." Then I was even more confused and wondered why one would choose 801 over 808 then. He explained to me that, for collectors, they have to consider that 10 or 20 years down the road. Most people in the next generation may not have a clue how many batches were issued back in 2009, 2008, 2007... Then everybody will know there is the first batch each year (such as 901) but can't be sure if an eighth batch was even issued in a specific year. Then you can probably imagine, even if you get some good 7542 808, 20 years down the road, some tea expert would say, "hmm... I'm pretty sure there wasn't a 808 batch in that year. So this tea can't be authentic!" An expert's thought of whether a batch was really issued in a specific tea would be a legitimate concern. The problem is many puerh experts would be very sure of things that they shouldn't be sure of, and 20 years down the road, most puerh drinkers and collectors might be quite clueless of such kind of trivial and could only turn to their puerh experts for decisions. You can also imagine that soon after the experts' comment on the batch number, there would probably be some semi-experts commenting that even without the factor of the batch number, just the leaves of the tea don't look right... None of this will affect your tea for drinking. But if you've collected the tea as an investment, then you may have some trouble dealing with the market perspectives of your tea.

What my friend said may also somewhat explain why in recent years, the first batch of many Dayi new products are slightly more expensive than latter batches of the same product in the retail market.

And why I don't believe it's practical for most tea drinkers to take puerh as investment - it's about investment only, and none of this should discourage people from collection for their own future drinking:

1. It's estimated that more than 80% puerh in storage is ruined in storage, sooner or later. There is no real data behind it, but it sounds reasonable. Twenty years of successful storage plus one accident is equivalent to a complete failure. Accident happens and we can't win every battle in peurh storage. But usually one can afford losing a few battles. It would be a much bigger heartache though (and hole on saving account), if it's part of a big investment.

2. Many puerh professionals believe professional level storage requires tea to be stored in whole big boxes (jian) and there should be many boxes of tea stored together. This is usually hard to achieve for most individual tea drinkers. There are some theories about whole boxes make tea storage better. It's hard to test them though. For example, would it really deviate from the "gold standard" if you store 42 cakes of various sheng in a box rather than storing an original jian of 42 same cakes? But in reality, indeed, whole boxes of tea are more liquidable than scattered tongs or cakes. Collecting whole boxes of tea is not practical to most tea drinkers and is somewhat restricted to people with more disposable incomes.

It would be a different topic about storing tea for personal drinking in the years to come. There have been many good discussions on strategies of family tea storage, and some very elegant examples of "pumidor" like this one. For people who don't have much isolated space to store tea, and for people like me who are too clumsy to build anything, here is one tip I got from a puerh professional. He said, "if you have a tiny storage room on the first floor of your house under the staircase, it might be perfect for tea storage." This guy runs large puerh storage warehouses in both Guangzhou and Kunming (both dry storage). He doesn't need to store a lot of tea at home. But I have to say, in any given space, he is fast at recognizing corners suitable for tea storage!

Mar 9, 2013

bundled readings

Saw this online, and this exactly suits my day. I'm supposed to catch a deadline of something else, as well as working on a few past-due tasks... yet I have been idling with tea stuff :-p

Here are a few readings that I've found very interesting. Most of them are not about tea at all. But somehow I've found them making excellent bundled readings with some popular tea discussions nowadays.

1. Here is a MIT funded randomized clinical trial that was not about any drug, but about placebos! The original article is on JAMA, one of the most influential medical sciences magazines. Interested geeks could found it on PubMed.

Basically, this trial shows that people who took the $2.5 placebo reported better pain-killing outcome than people who took the 10 cents placebo. I'm sure everyone of you could relate this to some tea conversations, or wine, or coffee... ;-)

2. Here is a NY Times article about tea culture in a North German town. I learned of it from a teatra.d discussion and from @babelcarp on twitter. It's a very interesting and beautifully written article. I guess different people would have different takes from this article. What impresses me about this article is how one can always find new experience in tea that goes beyond one's current value system. Many people may have in mind what "is tea" and what "isn't tea", what could be put in tea and what shouldn't be put in tea, what is the "hardcore" style of tea drinking and what is the clueless style. But we all have good chances to find out all these value systems are relative and even wrong.

3. Keith Chen: Could your language affect your ability to save money?
A very interesting 15min. talk giving by Yale Univ. behavioral economist Keith Chen. I'm sure you will enjoy it - it's not only very interesting, it's also about money :-p
The question posed is very novel, and the quantitative evidence behind it is quite convincing.

This has nothing to do with tea. But it's interesting to ponder on the fact that we are being influenced by things in our live that we are barely aware of.

Probably we can see in many examples how language can also affect our tea appreciation and how we approach tea culture. What Keith Chen talks about family vocabulary earlier in this video is very interesting - the word "uncle" in English can be translated to several different words in Chinese, depending on who it refers to, whether he is uncle from your father's family, from your mother's family, older than your father, younger than your father and how much DNA you share with him! It's not hard to imagine that this kind of vocabulary system can plant family lineage values in one's mind more easily than English. And I guess this has something to do with the degree of respect or even worship to one's teacher in Asian culture (in traditional Chinese culture, a teacher respected as much as a father, and a father is the most respected member of the smallest unit of a family). So, although this talk wasn't about tea at all, it reminds me of quite a few discussions between Asian tea drinker who referred to their tea teachers for "truth" and western tea drinkers who challenged it.

Another language question I have been thinking of, is what I mentioned in a teachat discussion:

I always have this question in mind, "what's a tea master?" Is "master" an English language thing that I have difficulty understanding or is "tea master" a phenomenon in tea world? Generally I understand a tea master is somebody who is very knowledgeable about tea. But I'm not sure what's the definition of tea master and what's not (unless it's a Japanese chanoyo tea master title, which has professional certification, or a Master's degree which has academic accreditation). I've met a bunch of tea scientists who study on growing tea and biochemical research of tea, and exceptional tea workers whose skills are at the rim of extinction, and very devoted and brilliant tea producers, tea scholars, tea historians and tea educators. Rarely I heard any of them being called "tea master". I feel it's probably because the Chinese word equivalent of "master" (maestro? 大师?) would be either very serious that's reserved for people like Confucius, or would be used in rather sarcastic way. 

Somehow, the word "master" makes me visualize an early 20th century British primary school teacher whipping his students :-p Is this the influence of language?

Mar 2, 2013

a tea accidentally made

This is a Meng Shan Mao Feng (蒙山毛峰) produced in last spring in Meng Mountain (home of Meng Ding Yellow Bud, and many other great teas) of Sichuan province.

I enjoyed this tea very much and thought I had taken some photos of it, but couldn't find any. The photo here is producer's photo, which actually would be much better than mine anyway.

Among all the green teas I like, the enjoyment level of this tea is probably in the mid-range, and its price is in the low-range. Although not one of the most impressive teas in my collection, this is another very unique teas. So I thought I would be remiss if I weren't to give it at least a brief documentation.

Meng Shan Mao Feng is produced every year. But I say this tea is very unique because Meng Shan Mao Feng of this quality wouldn't be seen very often. It was an accidentally made tea! And you know I love accidentally made tea :-) Last year, during the harvest season, the weather was very sunny and warm, which was great! Then, tea farmers found they could hardly catch up with the harvest for Meng Ding Honey Dew (蒙顶甘露), another Meng Shan green tea made of the earliest leaf buds in Meng Mountain.

It was a great harvest season, and the production of Meng Ding Honey Dew was great anyway. But it was a pity that a lot of leaf buds that could potentially be made into this high grade tea grew larger than required size before farmers had time to put their hands on it. By any chance if you have wondered how this could happen - how come in the 21st Century, the harvest speed couldn't catch up with the growing speed of leaf buds -  here is why. Meng Mountain, as its name indicates, is a very mountainous region. All harvest workers must walk up and down to pick tea leaves (this is pretty much true in most traditional tea growing areas in various countries, as the mountainous regions are naturally the best for tea). And, of course, for most green teas (not just high grade ones, but most ok grades), the harvest is leaf by leaf, bud by bud, completely manually.

Last spring, I made a purchase list for green teas, and ended up buying a lot more, because there were good teas put in my hands from time to time :-) This was one of them, and the producer told me, this tea was one day too old to be made into Meng Ding Honey Dew, and therefore this tea became a Meng Shan Mao Feng, an intrinsically inexpensive tea, but the highest grade of Meng Shan Mao Feng the producer himself had ever seen.

I think this tea is unique not only because it was accidentally made due to the weather. It's also because of its producer. Frankly speaking, if this tea appears in the market as Meng Ding Honey Dew, the highest grade tea, I would think the tea buds look a bit large, but wouldn't really blame the producer for it, as it's really only a little larger than what it should be. But this producer (who is also the producer of the Tibetan Hei Cha and Meng Ding Yellow Bud I've got in the past years) is what I call a serious producer. Whatever tea he makes, he literally holds "National Standards" (tea standards from State-Owned era, with nice and thorough description of quality requirements, but aren't enforced in private sectors of tea industry) in one hand, and other ancient or modern tea literature in the other hand. If the tea is a bit larger than required, he wouldn't call it Meng Ding Honey Dew. He would call it a Mao Feng, and proudly present it as the best Mao Feng. This is no less pride than what he would have in the best Honey Dew he makes.

In my experience dealing with tea producers, what tells a lot about a producer is not just the best tea they make, but more importantly, how they handle their lower-priced tea and what quality their low-priced tea holds. Some of my most expensive teas and least expensive teas are from the same producers. I often find interesting contrast between the teas, and consistent attitude of tea producers carried by these teas.

I don't have many photos of Meng Ding Honey Dew in hands. But the base tea of this Meng Ding Snow Orchid is quite similar to it. And there is one photo in this post. The tea is very fuzzy, and looks somewhat similar to Bi Luo Chun, for which I have a few not so clear photos in this post. A market phenomenon in recent years is, Sichuan green tea is used a lot to make fake Bi Luo Chun. In order to fake Bi Luo Chun, the tea buds must be of very high grade to begin with, and some of these tea buds could have been made into high grade Meng Ding Honey Dew, which is also great but has much lower market price than Bi Luo Chun. But the best Sichuan tea producers wouldn't get involved in the shady business. This is not only because they are too proud to fake anything, but also because they truly believe Sichuan tea tastes much better than Bi Luo Chun - I'm sure not all tea drinkers would agree on this, but it's not entirely unreasonable. Sichuan green teas generally have more explicit flavors than southeastern green teas, and would be enjoyed a lot more by tea drinkers with heavier tastes.

A couple of other accidentally made teas that I wrote about in the past:
The famous bug-bitten Oriental Beauty
The Red Dan Cong - There wasn't much of Red Dan Cong in 2010 yet. But last year, I saw quite a few Red Dan Cong products in the market. So probably this is becoming a trend!

Besides, the wild oolong that I enjoy very much basically started from the year when many other teas were ruined in the tree and the tea shifu was bored of doing nothing but waiting for the new harvest.

This is the spirit of "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!"