Apr 28, 2013

2012 Ming Yan Hao Burma-China border tea

This tea was $1 sample of the month in our web store in the past two months. It was purely out of selfishness that I held back from publishing this post earlier :-p

This tea is one of my recent favorites. I haven't had a lot of it yet, being cautious of having too much new sheng. But overall, my impression on this tea is, it's powerful yet not harsh. Although for a few times in conversations, I compared this tea to 2010 Zhang San (which I like very much too and showed a few photos in this post), and although they do share some similarity, the contrast of these two teas is obvious. To a large degree, the contrast in mouth feeling comes from age of tea trees (which I believe, but it's a feeling and is hard to quantify). Zhang San is from young arbor trees. This tea is from tea trees of over 300 years old. Besides, this tea is from an elevation of about 1500-1600m, which is slightly higher than the 1100m elevation of Zhang San. Interestingly (and probably not surprisingly), the price of Zhang San increased rapidly in the past three years. This is largely due to the tea quality there and widely acknowledged outstanding tea processing skills of Zhang San villagers. But the price rise has been too fast and too much, and it's probably largely because that now many people know about this village and their tea has become one of the most wanted. Currently, the market price of Zhang San young tree tea could easily go way above this Burma-China border tea (basically an unknown source to many people yet), yet I think it's very obvious that this tea has much higher value.

This is the kind of young sheng that makes me want to slow down in drinking, and get even slower, to experience what's the taste is like minutes after each sip and the mouth feeling many minutes afterward.

As much as I like this tea, it does have some flaws. I'm just happy that its flaws aren't what would strike my nerves. 

The "group photo" of the leaves mainly show their nice features. But the individual leaves photo below reflects both merits and flaws of this tea.

Since the tea is from a not very commercialized site and there isn't strict quality control, there are small amount of larger, broken or older leaves (such as the top right in the photo) that would have been picked out if it were in a more mature producing area of puerh. The transportation of raw tea is basically by foot which causes further crushing of some tea leaves. Later on, the crushed debris was removed through processing but some broken leaves and older leaves were left in. (Talking about by-foot transportation... it is quite normal in remote regions of Yunnan and usually even more strenuous than the Yellow Mountain village scene I wrote about in this post. But I've seen 5-year-old Yunnan boy carrying a big bucket of straws and hiked easily in the mountain, which made me feel we city dwellers were degenerative human beings...)

The stems of the bottom two pieces show typical "horse hoof" structure at the very bottom that's commonly seen in early spring arbor tree products (similar structures could be found in previously posted teas such as this, this, this, this, and this). On arbor trees, some tea buds grow directly from bigger branches or trunks instead of smaller branches. Therefore, when the tea bud is pulled off, the connection between the bud and the trunk shows a "horse hoof" structure. The "horse hoof" structure is not a "gold standard" to judge whether the tea is from big arbor trees, and some people even believe it indicates imperfect harvest method that may hurt the tree. But generally speaking, "horse hoof" structure and early spring arbor tree products have strong association with each other, and even carefully harvested tea from arbor tree would have a few "horse hooves" in each batch.

On the bottom right leaf, we can also see some insect-bitten spots. If we may call it a "merit"... since it demonstrates that the tree lives happily together with bugs.

It's a little ironic though, that merely 2.5 decades ago, when my grandma or mom went grocery shopping, they would try the best to pick cabbages with fewer bug-bitten holes. At that time, most vegetables in China didn't have a chance to "enjoy" the modern technology of pesticides yet, and the prettier leaves represented higher quality of the cabbage. Nowadays, instead, we would ever wonder how come the juicy, sweet lettuce doesn't have merely one bug-bitten hole, and when we see pest damages on organic vegetables, we feel as happy as seeing an old friend!

Another ironic story pertaining to this tea... *rumors* are, nowadays tea leaves from this region (a village near Burma-China border which has little reputation in puerh world) are often transported to Kokango (a Chinese ethnic region in Burma, currently famous for its ancient arbor tree puerh) to be sold as Kokango tea. Meantime, Kokango tea leaves are often transported to Bulang Mountain region to be sold as ancient arbor tea of some famous Chinese villages. When I heard of this, I could visualize busy people carrying tea from China to Burma, and then from Burma to China, back and forth... What a funny scene! All this is driven by cash, cash paid by people who care more about the title of a tea than the tea itself.

Apr 27, 2013

recommended readings

A few articles that I feel most people would enjoy!

1. I learned of this article from @jackie at this teatra.de discussion. I've heard that Pakistanis are crazy about tea. It looks like their tea is a lot different from the tea I drink. But the enthusiasm is intriguing!

By the way, Pakistan, when not in war, is a beautiful country. The photo on top of this post was taken in Pakistan by The Cyclist Seto (not me, another guy from Seto clan), and more of his Pakistani pictures can be found here.

2. If you want to learn more about Long Jing of this year, here is Long Jing report from Walker Tea Walker, features with photos from my friend 家住龙井村 :-)

3. From Steepsters about Mormon tea drinkers:

This is the first time I've heard that it's arguable whether there is a Mormon tea taboo! I had always thought that it's a Mormon rule that tea drinking is not allowed. But this Mormon tea drinker says that the scripture didn't specify tea (and not even coffee!) but as he clarified, "part of our code of health (called Word of Wisdom and adopted in the early 1800’s) is to avoid alcohol, tobacco and “hot drinks” which were later interpreted to mean coffee and tea."
I don't have much idea about how religiously correct this above statement is. On the one hand, I was surprised. On the other hand, it's not surprising to me that humans used their own understanding to interpret religious scriptures and made it rules of the God. It happened for many times in many religious organizations, right?

4. A thread from a Chinese tea forum with a lot of yixing photos. Very high level exhibitions of non-collector group yixing show. (The text is not important. Just see the photos would be enough.)

I see a lot of discussions all the time about "tuition teapots" and how new yixing users gain experience. Although it's always important to have hands-on experience to learn, personally, I would think it's more important to see a lot of good teapots than putting your hands on a lot of bad teapots to learn (let alone those bad teapots usually cost money for you to put your hands on them!).

I once wrote about how to deal with obsessive (tea / tea ware) shopping, and made a list of strategies. Maybe I could add to the list one more strategy - window shopping! For tea, we can't get much of the "taste" from window shopping. But for tea ware, I think window-shopping on good stuff would do a lot more good than buying bad stuff.

The tea ware board of teachat, especially those threads on the very top of the board, are also nice places for "window shopping".

Apr 20, 2013

concern of lead in tea products - a boring post after an awful week in Boston

Photo taken by Robert Seto on a deserted streets of Boston on Friday (4/19) morning.
This has been a terrible week for Boston! On top of it, yesterday, a grade 7 earthquake broke out in Sichuan province (actually Ya An, the region where Tibetan Hei Cha is produced). On one hand, natural disasters are always so overwhelming and leave a completely helpless feeling to people. On the other hand, in some sense, human disasters caused by human violence feel even more awful than natural disasters.

I'm glad that the week in Boston has a relatively good end, and grateful for the efficient and effective action of the law enforcement. Everybody feels relieved after last night. But on the other hand, we all know that this is so not-over for many others whose lives were permanently damaged at the Boston Marathon bombing...

This is by far not the first time large-scale man-slaughter (involving kids!) has happened. But this time, it makes me feel awful in a whole new way. Part of the awful feeling is from the awareness that we've already got too much violence in this world, yet it happened again, to an event that is supposed to be one of the most inspiring and most peaceful activities in our society.

I have this draft about concern of lead in tea, which I'm afraid is neither interesting nor pleasant. I left it unfinished for a long time. But this week, I guess I won't have the mood to write anything pleasant anyway, and hopefully this lead thing can be a little bit informative for people who do care about lead problems. So I thought I would post it this week.

From time to time, there are questions from tea drinkers about lead contamination in tea. It is a legitimate concern and lead is indeed occasionally found in tea. Recognized sources of lead contamination includes:

* air pollution - this is mainly caused by automobiles and mainly affects plantations near urban areas.

* soil pollution - this is mainly caused by deposition from automobiles and mainly affects plantations by the roadsides.

Considering the first above two factors, high end teas from traditional producing areas have smaller chance of lead contamination. This is because most of the best tea producing areas are in remote mountainous regions relatively short of automobile roads.

* harvest method - buds and younger leaves are more free of contamination. Generally speaking, higher end green teas are composed of mostly buds and younger leaves, compared with lower end green teas. Across tea categories, green teas generally take younger leaves than high end oolong products. Most black teas and many puerh and hei cha products take older leaves than green teas and higher end oolong.

Harvest method and leaf stage is just one factor affecting lead contents in tea. Older leaves of puerh from pristine environments could be totally free of lead, and very young tea buds in heavily polluted areas can be exposed to lead.

* processing - lead contamination from processing equipment. This is supposed to be the easiest to avoid but unfortunately happens sometimes. According to a study published in a Chinese journal, among the 18 factories whose tea products are sampled, the factories focusing on higher grade teas have the lowest lead contents, and the lead content is less after processing compared with before processing. The factories focusing on lower grade teas have the highest lead contents.

According to a Chinese article about lead standard, the Chinese tea inspection standard is 2mg/kg. Japanese standard is 25mg/kg. EU is 5mg/kg. Australia and Canada's is 10mg/kg. (None of them is zero because for various reasons, trace amount of lead is commonly found in air and water.)

Since the above numbers are from a Chinese article published in 2008, I don't know how accurate it is about other countries' standards and if there have been any changes in recent years.

The article with these numbers resulted from an interview with Chen Zongmao, Chinese leading tea scientist and Academician of Chinese Academy of Engineering. He quoted these numbers to emphasize that Chinese lead standards were made in 1988, while the standards of most other countries were made in later years (with a more polluted world). EU standards were made much more strict than before to target on food/tea imports from other countries. Chen Zongmao listed this numbers to urge the government to LIFT Chinese tea lead standard, because he believes it's unfair to Chinese producers. This suggestion from Chen Zongmao, of course, caused great social debate. On the one hand, do people ever want to lift inspection standard, don't we want to always make it stricter and safer??

Chen Zongmao's proposal should be viewed with a context though. What he said was mainly in response to the international trade wars on going during the time. In 2008, EU tightened a series of pesticides inspection standards overnight, with the most rapid change on endosulfan, whose inspection standard was lowered from 30mg/kg to 0.01mg/kg, a 3000 times change overnight. In 2008, many western countries were shocked by the news that so many Chinese food products export to EU failed inspection. But with the context, it's not really surprising that most of those products satisfied all EU requirement one night before, and would fail the 3000 times more strict standards one night after. Not surprisingly, this failure of compliance of EU inspection standards happened to many products from various exporting countries. European and American news media mainly targeted Chinese producers on this. This action of singling out Chinese products is not surprising to me and I wonder if it's surprising to anybody at all :-p

So basically the discussion on lead and many other pesticides standards in China were not just about the environment or health, but about politics and economics as well. This is rather unfortunate. But equally unfortunately, the inspection standards of some importing countries, including EU countries, were not just about the environment or health, but about politics and economics as well.

Since not all tea products are inspected for lead (lead inspection is not required for all international trades), the inspection standards can only serve as references. Generally speaking, it seems to me "high grade tea" and "young leaves" are the most visible standards to consumers. Besides, as for many other quality factors of tea, the quality of the ecosystems where the tea is grown is extremely important. However, information of ecosystems is not always available to consumers, and in today's economy, many "high end" teas are made "high end" based on packaging and advertising.

At last, I also want to point out that the lead concern in tea is not necessarily greater than lead concern in almost everything else, including air and water. In fact, I suspect lead concern in tea is much smaller than lead concern in many other things. In many ways, other food products are more easily contaminated by lead than tea, and many  other food products are for complete consumption, instead of being infused like tea (lead is in its insoluble form in tea products). So generally speaking, lead contamination is a great concern in tea, but it's in everything else as well. The ultimate way to get clean food is to improve the entire ecosystem, and have more progressive gasoline standards (since automobile contamination is one of the major source of lead contamination).

In non-food products, from time to time, lead raises concerns too. For example, according to some consumer group reports, purses of some popular brands have lead significantly above the legal standards. Among the brands mentioned there are purses with typically $200-$500 price tags (such as Tory Burch).

I love purses as much as I love tea... (and I like Tory Burch a lot!) So I hope it's not just the bias toward tea that makes me feel tea is generally perfectly safe (but bias does exist because I suspect I love tea more than purses...)  I feel we are in a more danger and more polluted world nowadays, but I still feel tea is safer than a lot of other things.

Apr 13, 2013

guess guess guess... reunion of 3 brothers (1)

In the past a few years, several people told me that they found it interesting that I always claim that I'm not so excited about puerh, yet I seem to drink them and write about them all the time :-p

Indeed, puerh is by far not the tea type I drink the most. But it seems there is always more to write about puerh. For green tea and oolong, after I write about a tea, I'm done. I wouldn't write about the new Long Jing every year,  because they are similar in most years. But for puerh, there are so many producers and so many brands. And even for the same product of the same producer, there are various years, various versions of the same year (always HATE producers who do this kind of things though!), outcomes of various storage, etc.

Chang Tai is one of those producers that create various versions of the same tea even within the same year, and it has so many registered trademarks to a degree of confusion. Generally speaking, I don't dislike Chang Tai, and even like some of their teas very much. But I hate how confusing they are, and feel during their heydays back in early 2000s, they significantly benefited from the confusion they generated. But then there is tea karma and they did receive some revenge later on, as I've gossiped here.

In Chinese market today, Chang Tai is recovering but still suffers from its failure back in 2007. Then, sometimes there are good deals.

Ban Na Yun Wu (Cloud) Tea is one of the supposedly quality-price-ratio product of Chang Tai. It's relatively inexpensive compared with other Chang Tai products, and is supposed to have relatively solid quality.

Now here is a game for you! I've got three Ban Na Cloud tea here. Some of them I got with really good price, and some of them don't have as good quality-price-ratio - I got them anyway, mainly to let the 3 brothers have a reunion, and for me to compare them. So in this sense maybe we can call them "tuition tea"? :-)

I've got - 1, 2003 Banna dry storage; 2, 2005 banna dry storage; and 3, 2005 Guangzhou dry storage.

Now the question is: Which is which?

And the bonus question is - any comments on the cakes and leaves?

I will let you take the guesses before blabbing more...

After taking the photos, I enlarged the photos and looked at them carefully. And I have to say, part of the question is a trick, and if you know the key, you could tell. On the other hand, part of the question is purely guessing. If I hadn't put my hands on them, by looking at the photos, I would be quite clueless. So just guess and don't use too much logic :-D

Apr 6, 2013

a tough cookie bamboo tea tray

This is one of my most used/abused tea utensils. I've been using it for several years - don't remember exactly how long, but much longer than most people had predicted.

This is one of the most ordinary tea trays from one of the most ordinary producers. It cost, like, $3-5 in China. I'm sure one can still find something like this today within US for lower than $20. Many people would warn against getting bamboo tea trays, because, they leaks. At certain point in their lives, they leak like there is no tomorrow! In the traditional time, all the bamboo materials for household ware would be treated, aged and weathered, so that they would be tough enough to last for decades. But nowadays few people would do this, and definitely won't do this for a $5 tea tray. But bamboo tea trays are generally cheap, and bamboo is a nice, lovely natural material. Somehow among all my tea ware, I don't have the passion to get fancy tea trays, and don't want to ship nice, heavy ones from overseas. So I got this little bamboo tea tray. I have a few other tea trays here and there. All of them are cheap little tea trays. But this bamboo one is most heavily used (or abused).

When it was new, it looked all nice...

I've heard of quite a few discussions on how to protect your bamboo tea tray, like draining it and letting it dry soon after use, or giving it some oil from time to time. But I was too lazy to follow all these. I left water in it overnight all the time and rarely carefully dry it after use. And I use it heavily.

Then, not surprisingly, just several weeks after I started using it, it leaked! But then, I used some caulk/sealant material (from Home Depot, and probably the kind for kitchen sink) to seal around its inside. So the tea tray became a little ugly inside...

But from the outside, one wouldn't be able to tell...

Then, a few months later, the little bamboo tea tray leaked again, and I sealed it again. The caulk-sealing repeated for a few times. After layers of sealing, as far as I could remember, I didn't have to seal it ever again! 

So it kept serving me very well. It looked more used, but didn't show any sign of retirement. I used it almost every day.

But then, last year, there were half a year that I was fully occupied with moving and some other work. The tea tray was buried in an unopened moving box for a few months. Then, after it was resurrected, there were a few months that I didn't drink as much tea and when I drank tea, I didn't use the tea tray very often. Besides, those were winter months and I left the tea tray in a rather dry corner of my bedroom. 

So earlier this year, when I started to pay more attention to this old friend, I found it leaking more than ever, and there were rather large splits on the bamboo pieces on its top. It was all my fault. And I feel that I almost killed it! After all these years, this was the "oldest" looking it has ever got.

Sometimes, the only thing that can kill a tough soldier is putting him out of work! 

I sealed it again. And this time I had to seal it twice to stop the leaking. Then I started using it again, on weekly basis, not daily basis though. These days I can't stay at home for most days of the week. So I would use it mainly at weekends. The splits on the bamboo will surely shorten its life. But I think I will stick to it until it literally falls apart. 

When I come to think of it, it amazes me that most of my friends said a cheap bamboo tea tray wouldn't last long, yet it served me well for so many years. And when it decays, it was caused by me not using it. 

I remember years ago, a group of friends and I were talking about "what's the best way to age your yixing teapots?" There were quite a few good answers and nice tips. But my favorite answer was this one from a tea friend, "the best way to age your yixing teapots, is to use your favorite teapots to brew your favorite teas." Basically, use it, and enjoy using it. Cheap or expensive, ordinary or fancy, I feel most tea ware could benefit from this one-sentence summary of "the best way."