Oct 19, 2013

reunion of twins (3a) - Yi Wu, 10 years later

Other reunions of puerh twins or triplets can be found here.

This pair of twins are different in terms of two factors, one factor is storage location and the other factor is the shape of tea. Brother #1 is a brick and brother #2 is a cake. One of them was stored in Kunming between 2003 and 2013 and one of them was stored in Guangzhou throughout the time (both dry-stored, and the supplier of the teas literally repeated for more than a dozen times that the Guangzhou-stored one is dry-stored, dry-stored, dry-stored...) Their difference in taste, I believe, is mostly due to their storage environment. But it's unknown to me how much the shape of the teas has affected their aging.

Traditionally bricks were often made with lower grade leaf materials than cakes (and against today's trend, tuo used to use the highest grade of leaf materials). Up till today, many puerh brands still have both cakes and bricks in the same product series, and higher leaf materials are used for the cake. But these two teas are made of exactly the same leaf materials from the same batch. So they are indeed twins. And I think it's cute that they even have same clothing.

Both teas have decent leaf materials, but not as pretty leaves and buds as today's most expensive puerh products. Like many other good teas made in early 2000s and before, the tea doesn't look as meticulously made as many modern-day products. But it's easy to tell the leaves are nice and nutritious.

Brother #1 brick

This one has a "gift with purchase" - a cotton string

Brother #2

This one also has a "gift with purchase" - a wheat shell

One small piece off each:

Close up look of the piece from the cake:

Close up look of the piece from the brick:

Since this is not molecular biology, but just casual tea tasting, I didn't weigh the 2 pieces, and just took two pieces of seemingly suitable sizes and took two teapots (of different shapes and clay textures) of seemingly suitable sizes. And of course, no thermometer for water temperature and no timer for infusion time.  ;-)

It turned out indeed I mistakenly took too large a piece of the brick for the teapot I assigned to it. This kind of things happen rather frequently, I have to admit. One of my favorite tea seller often says, "I don't know anything about Cha Dao (茶道), I only know something about Dao Cha (倒茶)." While I guess you all know what Cha Dao means, I want to point out that Dao Cha means pouring tea. He is a professional and knows how to pour tea very well. Compared with him, I don't know either Cha Dao or Dao Cha, and I just lower the standards for myself :-p

And indeed all these discrepancies in a comparative tasting would contribute to the final tastes of the teas. Would it affect a fair comparison? Well, if you think of it in another way - if you have to control all the brewing factors to detect the tiny small difference between two teas, wouldn't you just conclude that these two teas are *almost* the same and not distinguishably different from each other?

For these twins here, in spite of the discrepancies in brewing, the differences between the two teas are still very obvious and it doesn't take a trained professional to tell. Besides, it's also very obvious that the differences are mostly due to the storage environments of the two teas.  

I know I'm rather wordy and I still have a lot to blah-blah about the comparative tasting of the two teas. So I would take a break here and come back to the tasting notes later. And here is a question for you (which is not a tricky question): from the dry tea photos alone, could you tell which one was Guangdong-stored and which was Kunming-stored?

Oct 15, 2013

ordinary teapots and ordinary potters

As you know, my tea motto is, tea drinking is a luxury of time, and not necessarily a luxury of money. We all know that yixing prices are higher and higher nowadays. Not necessarily a luxury of money? Well, it's all relative what "luxury" means. But overall, I believe yixing purchase just demonstrates that spending time is more important than spending money. I'm sure money could help one have a lot of fun. But having a lot of money isn't the only way to have a lot of fun.

This little teapot showed above is one of the least expensive yixing teapots I have. I bought it several years ago from Yunnan Sourcing for about $25. I bought it partially because it was a good deal (Yunnan Sourcing has a lot of good deals!) and partially because it was an interesting phenomenon that *many* people from teachat back then bought this same teapot from Yunnan Sourcing. It was pretty much a group effect. I remember seeing numerous tea-show photos from various people on teachat with this teapot. When I bought it, I took a look at the author's name - Zhou Huaqiang - and didn't think much of it. There are hundreds of thousand yixing potters in China. It's not always possible to tell who is better than whom.

I use this teapot very often. It's probably not one of my top 10 (or top 20) favorite teapots. But it's just so easy to use and so pleasant. As mentioned before, it's one of my favorite travel teapots. This is very similar to the phenomenon in shoes (I mean women's shoes, not necessarily men's shoes). I have about 60-80 pairs of shoes, but probably fewer than 15 pairs of them are in constant use, and my favorite and prettiest shoes are not all within these 15 pairs. (And there are several pairs that I have never worn yet since purchase.)

Later, a tea friend of mine in China mentioned to me that he got an inexpensive teapot that worked very well. And the name of the potter is Zhou Huaqiang. I was happy that we share teapots from the same rather unknown potter. What a coincidence (because there are hundreds of thousands of yixing potters)! And this helped me remember the name of Zhou Huaqiang better.

In the past a few years, I talked with more yixing professionals and learned from them several key points to aim at if one wants to make shui ping teapot "the Factory No. 1 style", including the shape of the tip of the spout, the connection lines at various locations, and angles of different sections. Then, I realized that this summarizes very well why some shui ping teapots look nice and are easy to use. At that point, when I looked back to Zhou Huaqiang's little shui ping teapot, I could see that it indeed hits all the key points. The teapot is made of regular grade of red clay mixed with sands - nothing fancy, but regular and good clay. It's a semi-manually made pot - hand made facilitated by shaping tools (this method would qualify as completely hand made in most other fields of pottery, but is classified as semi-manual in yixing, in contrast to the fully hand made method). Overall it's not an upscale teapot. It's just an ordinary teapot made by an ordinary young potter. But when I gained more understanding about the shui ping style, I've come to appreciate this teapot more, and know that it's a sincerely made piece.

I usually don't have much idea about how much each specific yixing potter is "worth". But recently in an occasional market observation, I noticed that these days Zhou Huaqiang mainly focuses on fully hand made teapots (a sign of "doing well" for a yixing potter) and all his teapots are sold for a lot higher prices than $25 (this is also because they are fully hand made, of course). This by no means indicate that the little shui ping I have and my peer tea drinkers have are worth a lot of money now :-p And that's not my concern anyway. But it's nice to know that Zhou Huaqiang is doing better and better in merely several years. And I was not surprised. The man who put sincere work into a regular piece of work that didn't make much money for him, is a sincere artist. And he deserves success. I'm sure it takes much more than hard work and good work ethics to succeed, and there are talented and hardworking artists who don't make it to the very top of the food chain. But I'm glad to see this guy is doing well, and I believe being sincere to the work is one of the basic and essential quality of an artist. 

Another teapot I used to like very much is this one. And probably you could tell I really enjoyed it from my 2-week report.
Since I bought it myself from China, and since back then USD to CNY was still 1:8.3 (yeah good old days!), this one cost even less than $25. And it's such a cute pot! I said I *used to* like it very much, because very unfortunately I broke the lid shortly after the 2-week report :-(

I managed to "glue" the shattered pieces with rice soup - not a water-proof glue, of course...

The teapot holds as one piece very well (rice soup is miraculous) as long as it doesn't touch water.

So I barely ever use this teapot anymore. But I still use it as a sharing pitcher from time to time. And occasionally, I put the lid of the aforementioned Zhou Huaqiang shui ping on top of this teapot and it fits quite well. Funny thing these two made a good match!

This teapot was made by Ji Weicheng - and of course he was only one of the hundreds of thousands of yixing potters and I didn't have much idea how much he was "worth". But overall I was impressed how well made it was for its price level. When I saw the name of Ji Weicheng earlier this year, he was listed as a well respected yixing artist and he mainly focuses on fully hand made teapots nowadays. Obviously he is doing well, after merely several years. His teapots aren't yet among the most expensive ones, but obviously he is at a whole new level now. And I was not surprised. I only regretted that I didn't wrote to him to beg for a new lid when his teapots were much cheaper :-p

Not all the unknown potters are as good. Around the same time I bought the Ji Weicheng teapot, I bought another inexpensive teapot made by another unknown young potter (whose name shall not be mentioned here...). At the beginning, it had great difficulty just pouring water out of it. After a quick examination, I found that 3 of the 7 strainer holes were clogged by clay, and another few of them were half-way clogged. It was the first time I had ever done something like this. But I found a big pin, straightened it, and used it to dredge the 7 strainer holes. I did it successfully and it took me 10 minutes. I felt both upset and amused. I understood that it was an inexpensive teapot, with regular clay and regular level of craftsmanship. But I did expect a teapot to pour smoothly. Besides, it doesn't take that much work to do some quick quality control or quick fix (it took me 10 minutes). The potter who made this teapot, as far as I know, is by far not as successful as the above-mentioned two. Probably he could still make a good living in the billion-people market of China. But I believe he is at a completely different level than the other two.

When reading my own 2-week report of the Ji Weicheng teapot, I saw that back then I said I was quite satisfied with these well made inexpensive teapots and wouldn't plan to buy any expensive teapots anytime soon. The funny thing is, I still feel this way now. In today's market, maybe $25 yixing teapots aren't that common, and even twice or triple the price would be seen as inexpensive. But within the relative price ranges, I've come to see many more well made inexpensive (well, relatively inexpensive) teapots made by unknown young potters. I didn't become much richer than several years ago (although I wish for the other way). Besides, I break things rather stupidly (as witnessed by the Ji Weicheng teapot...) and probably I should be banned from using expensive and fragile things :-p That being said, if I had a lot of money, I will surely buy more beautiful yixing teapots and spend more money on them (when I said this, someone in the house is scared...). But meantime, I always believe ordinary and sincerely made teapots deserve our appreciation too.

Oct 12, 2013

some thoughts on puerh storage at home (1)

Can you believe that I have more than 100 blog drafts stored in my system, yet I could never finish them!

This piece I wrote the first part more than a year ago, and only have the first part here. I will need some time to recall what I meant to write for the rest of it :-p

Just casual chat. No technicalities here :-)

Generally speaking, I don't plan to store a lot of puerh at home (oh well people define "a lot" differently). But with shopping going on and when seeing teas that I really love, storage natural happens. I have friends whose homes dedicate more area to puerh than to people :-p But I don't think I'm heading there.

Although I've been interested in comparing "twins" or "triplets" of puerh for the contrast of different storage effects, my purpose was mainly to satisfy my own curiosity rather than gaining knowledge about actually storing puerh myself - I'm too lazy to do any environment control and New England is great for lazy people to store tea :-D

So I will first talk about why I don't store a lot of puerh at home, and then some random thoughts on optimal home storage of puerh. 

I don't plan to store a lot of puerh at home, mainly for following reasons:

1. Many puerh professionals hold the opinion that home storage of puerh can never be as successful as puerh storage in professional warehouses. Generally I think this opinion is plausible. In home-storage, the hardest part might not be control of temperature or humidity (if one cares enough to strictly control them), but the density of tea storage (having as much tea as possible in each cubic meter of storage) and small proportion of edges (the smaller the volume, the larger the edge effects).

2. I believe aged puerh of decent quality and affordable prices would be more and more abundant in the years to come - I gave some explanation about why I think so in this post, but probably I'm more optimistic than many other people.

3. Even though buying old puerh is expensive, home storage is not cheap either, if considering money spent on buying a home (that must count, right?!) and tea ruined in storage (either due to owner's mistakes or due to factors out of human control). A puerh producer I know once commented that he believes currently nationwide (in China),  tea ruined in storage may amount to 60-80% of total puerh annual production. It's just a rough estimation, and probably not a pessimistic one. If you think 60%-80% sounds too much, just think of it in terms of decades. For puerh, one accident could end it completely.

Here are some of my thoughts on home storage of puerh.

1. People are more important than tea.
Oh well, I'm not sure if everybody agrees on it. But that's what I believe ;-) How is this related to puerh storage? I believe we should make our homes comfortable for people to live before considering how to make homes suitable for tea storage. And usually, when we take care of ourselves, a lot of tea storage problems are solved.

For example, for more than a dozen time, on both English language tea forums and Chinese tea forums, I've seen questions like this, "My house has a relative humidity of merely 30% during winter. What am I going to do about my tea storage?" Every time I see this question, the first thought in my mind is not about their tea, but - "How do these people live in a relative humidity of 30%?! Forget about the tea for a moment. Raise the humidity for yourself!" Maybe some people are accustom to this kind of humidity level, but not most people, I guess.

"People are more important than tea" is probably just a philosophy that one may or may not cherish. But from the practical point of view, when we maintain a healthy overall environment for our homes, it takes little to no effort to maintain a healthy small environment for the tea stock - this is related to my 2nd point.

2. Most environments that are livable for people are good for tea storage.
Again, I'm not sure if everybody agrees on it. This is just a way of thinking, but not a rule. And this doesn't include people who prefer extreme environments or people who prefer extreme environments for their tea :-p

I've heard this message, "an environment livable for people is good for tea storage", from various puerh and Hei Cha professionals when they talked about home storage. And I like it. Not only that it makes sense to me, it's actually the easiest way too - taking care of your tea by taking care of yourself. Besides, in my observation, people's preference in tea is more or less associated with the environment they are familiar with. For example, coming from northern China (relatively dry), I have little tolerance of damp smell or flavor. On the other hand, Cantonese (in southern China next to the ocean) invented humid storage of puerh.

And of course, on top of the theory of "an environment livable for people is good for tea storage", common sense should be used - such as, unlike people, tea should stay in a dark place.

To be continued...

3. Generating a comfortable environment for both people and tea.

4. Ziploc-ed or not... Rubbermaid-ed or not...

5. Site and size of storage

6. Box, envelope, jar, wrapper, storage of broken cakes

7. A few role models

Oct 4, 2013

Discussion on Long Jing (8) - Grading of Long Jing (now and then)

Other discussions on Long Jing can be found here.

The grading of Long Jing discussed here focuses on the national standards created by Chinese government and local standards by Long Jing farmers. Names of grades created by other organizations or individuals are not within the scope of this discussion.

The grading of Long Jing has changed a lot in the past a few decades.

In the old days (before 1995), Xi Hu Long Jing was classified into 13 grades, from Superior 1, Superior 2, Superior 3, Grade 1... to Grade 10. From Grade 1 to Grade 10, each grade was divided into 5 levels. So there were totally 13 grades and 53 levels. It was the official and universal way of grading when everything within the tea industry was state-owned. Each year, standard tea samples of all 53 levels were made available as benchmarks to grade Long Jing products collected from tea farmers and to guide the market of Long Jing. It was a nice and strict system. But 53 levels were just too many to be practical for a growing market of luxury tea in China (Long Jing has been the utmost of the luxury tea in China since Qing Dynasty, after being "advertised" by generations of emperors).

Back then, the highest grade Long Jing (higher than Grade 4, or any pre-Qingming tea) was not available in the market for ordinary people to buy. On the other hand, money was not the key to get the best tea. "Connections" were sometimes more important. There were many years when the whole family of us got pre-Qingming Long Jing along with Long Jing of medium grades from my aunt who worked in the Science and Technology Department of Hangzhou. Somehow their office got Long Jing "samples" every year - which basically meant a few kilos for everybody in the office, yet it was called "samples" :-p With our special connection through my aunt, we were lucky to enjoy nice and fresh tea each year. But the amount was small for each person and the tea was seen as very precious. 

In 1980s, once my father went to Hangzhou, and bought some grade 4 long jing - the highest grade then available in market for ordinary people to buy. Up till these days he still says how much better the grade 4 Long Jing was than many so-called superior-grade Long Jing products in market today. I don't believe it's all because of his wrecked memory and nostalgia. Back then, everything went by the universal standards, and a grade 4 was a solid grade 4. Nowadays, many things could be called superior grade with a big price tag - I think I sound like a senior citizen now :-p

In 1995, the grading of Long Jing was simplified to 7 grades, including Superior 1-3, and Grade 1-4. This simplification was partially to make the grading less complicated, and partially because many farmers stopped autumn harvest of Long Jing. Autumn tea of Long Jing was of lower grades than spring tea (and this is true for most Chinese green teas). With increasing living standards of Long Jing farmers and higher labor costs, the lowest grades of Long Jing tea were discontinued.

Today the aforementioned two systems of Long Jing grading are still in the textbooks of tea institutes and are still used in tea labs of research institutions. But most tea estates and tea companies are privately owned now. Producers and owners can grade their tea in any way they wish. In Long Jing, as well as in many other types of tea, I've seen a lot of grade 2 teas from certain producers that are much better than superior grades of some other producers. So I think nowadays the grading doesn't tell you much about the tea itself, but tells a lot about the standards of a producer/supplier/vendor.

Without a centralized, consistent grading system, nowadays a lot of farmers of long jing, bi luo chun and other green teas use harvest dates to grade their tea - although it's not a perfectly scientific standards, it's probably more objective. For approximate dates of tea harvest, here is a tea calendar. But please keep it in mind that the harvest dates vary from year to year, depending on weather conditions.