Caffeine detox

Once in a while, I’ll go through what is essentially a caffeine detox, or really, just a period of drinking less tea. What I notice is that consumption of tea over time trends up. This also means that I generally consume more and more tea over time. It’s sort of natural – you fill up the pot, and before you close it and start the process of brewing, you add a little more. This “little more” gets normalized and next time you add a little more again… and it goes up.

I’m fairly disciplined when it comes to personal tea consumption. Unless I’m drinking with people, which is rare these days, I usually just drink one tea a day – which means that I only drink one session of tea a day. Now, I will re-brew this tea many times over, so in effect I’m extracting all the caffeine there is out of them, usually, but it’s still just one tea a day. I think among my readers many are multi-session-per-day type. That’s not me.

Still, drinking a lot of tea has its effects on the body. There’s a balance to everything and it’s probably not a good idea to consume too much of anything, so after a while of drinking a lot of tea, I often will consciously go through a period of lower consumption to re-adjust myself to a lower caffeine intake. I find this is good – good for my palate, and good for my body. Caffeine overdose  is a very uncomfortable thing. While I haven’t gotten there in many years, it’s still something I want to avoid. There are also times where I’m not exactly in OD territory, but I can feel my heart pumping faster and my body reacting to a bit too much caffeine. That’s usually a sign I need to tone it down if it happens too often.

Some people I know quit cold turkey trying to re-adjust to lower caffeine. I find that painful – literally, because you get massive headaches, but also not having any tea makes me really cranky because, let’s face it, it’s an addictive drug. So, instead, I usually opt for aged oolongs – the tea that is clearly the lowest in caffeine among my regular rotation of stuff. I also very consciously measure out the amount of leaves I use and make sure I’m not putting in too much tea leaves.

The end result is usually pretty immediate and obvious – I get a bit sleepy earlier in the day, I don’t get jittery, and also I have a little bit of craving sometimes for more tea, which I have to resist. There’s always that temptation to drink more tea – which must be resisted. Which is another reason why aged oolong is great – a good aged oolong will keep giving if you keep rebrewing grandpa style, without really much in the way of additional caffeine. It’s the perfect tea for this sort of thing.

I usually do this for a couple weeks – at which point tea consumption will stay low for much longer but it’s no longer such an obvious thing to fight. Then, well, the cycle begins anew….

Life and death of a tree

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This is a picture from my friend L, who is visiting Yiwu again this year. He’s been going for some years now, the first visit of his from 2007. He said when he first went to Yiwu, this tree was supposed to be 600 years old. It was just growing in the wild, one of the older trees, but certainly nothing too special. A few years later, in 2012 when he visited this spot again, the tree was now 1400 years old, not 600. By then, it had been “protected” with this metal cage you see surrounding it, and also some concrete poured around it to help protect it from, presumably, falling off the slope or something. Fast forward a few more years to today – as you can see in the picture, the tree is either dead or about to die, with no leaves and no real sign of life. It’s not the first tree like this and won’t be the last. Nannuo mountain had a similar, much bigger (physically) tree that was also “protected” and died in the process.

But fear not – there’s already a newly crowned “1000 years old” tree at the front of the village with a sign hanging from the tree proclaiming so. Tourists who are entering the region need not worry – they will still be able to see 1000 years old tree and buy magical leaves from them!

Now, aside from the utter absurdity of the story and the sadness of it all, I think it’s safe to say that those of us who have watched the puerh market for a decade or more know this sort of thing has been going on for some time now. The ever-increasing age of certain trees is not surprising – it’s been that way since at least 2005, when people first started getting crazy about older trees. Prices for the leaves have never really fallen since then, and now ever-fancier things are happening, with single tree cakes being pressed, etc. Just look at this tree though – how much tea do you think it can realistically produce? It’s no taller than a person and half. Even if you chop down the entire tree and took down all the leaves when it was in full bloom, chances are it’s no more than a couple kilos when fried and dried.

That brings us to a more salient point – this area of China has never, ever been rich. For pretty much its entire history, human beings living in these mountains have lived a subsistence lifestyle – they produce enough to sustain their life, but not much more. When tea traders first visited these areas in the early 2000s, conditions were primitive. Huts were shabby, sanitation basic, food, while they exist, were not exactly free flowing. In earlier decades many farmers actually chopped down their tea trees to plant rubber, because rubber trees offered a more steady income. Old tree tea was cheaper – they were considered less good back then, and more troublesome to harvest. Prices only really reversed starting somewhere in 2003, and hasn’t looked back since.

So in the face of this sudden rush of fortune, it is not a surprise that farmers in this area would want to exploit it to the full. This is, after all, their one chance of getting comfortable, even rich if you were one of those lucky ones to live in a famous village like Banzhang. You can finally make some decent money, send your kids to school comfortably, buy some creature comfort, build a new, better house, get a motorcycle or even a pickup truck. You can have some money in the bank, and enjoy life a little more. If the cost of all that is, say, the over-harvesting of some trees in the slopes above your house…. that’s ok, no? These trees finally will pull them out of poverty, and with an endless supply of newcomers who don’t know that much about tea, business is good.

In the last few years as tea-tourism has increased exponentially (I read one account that said this year 500,000 people are visiting the tea mountains during harvest season) there is an increasing number of people who really have no business going to the mountains in there, buying tea. If you are a rich, city professional interested in tea, and are spending a couple weeks in Yiwu looking at things, well, you would want some of your own tea, no? Here, here’s some tea from my 800 years old tea tree. That bag there? It’s the 600 years old one. If you are visiting only that one time – you’ll want to get your hands on some of these things. What’s a few thousand RMB for half a kilo of tea? It’s the memory that counts, and you can press it into a cake or a couple cakes and store it forever, knowing that you personally went up to the mountain to press these unique, old, single-tree cakes.

At that point, does it actually matter what trees these leaves are from? These guys are just buying tour souvenirs. It can be trash tea and it won’t matter. And a lot of it is indeed trash tea sold to people who really don’t know what they’re doing when buying maocha. When you compare a few bags of tea, one of them will always be better than the others. That doesn’t mean the bag is good, unless you really know what you’re doing. Most people have never really tried really fresh maocha enough to know the difference.

Eager customers from faraway places who don’t get to go to Yunnan easily are also lured in by the same promise. Like this tree that magically went from 600 years to 1400 years old – outlandish claims exist, even among vendors whose primary customer are in Western countries – and people buy them hoping that they, too, can experience these amazing teas. Let it sink in for a moment how old those trees are really, and think about how likely it is that these claims have any semblance of truth. Meanwhile, spare a thought for this tree that perished in the process.

What’s a good tea?

First, an important but unrelated point – as we move our discussions and conversations onto various social media platforms, those discussions are lost to those who are not privy to these conversations. Even if you are a member of those groups, or friends with those people, if the algorithm decides not to show you the conversation, and if nobody told you about it, you’ll never find it, basically. So, although these platforms can be great for connecting people, the memories are all fleeting, with no permanence to speak of. The author of the original post can decide to delete the post, and everything is gone. If you don’t have a direct link, even if you scroll through the timeline of whoever or whichever group it belongs to, you might not be able to find it. Search is useless. So, any sort of wisdom, knowledge, or ideas that were shared are not open to all. That’s a problem.

The reason I’m saying this is because there’s a recent discussion in the facebook group Puerh Tea Club about “how you know what is good“. The question is one that plagues not just tea drinkers, but aficionados of all kinds – how do you know what you have/see/drink/smoke/eat is good or not?

The answers to this question run in a few different directions. One is the simplest, but perhaps least useful – whatever you prefer is the best. To this, our dear friend Su countered that she knows someone who’s been drinking the same type of teabag for 50 years – he likes it, but does it make the teabag good? Objectively, I think most of us will say no. So clearly, the answer has to be more than that.

Then you can get all scientific – some kind of complicated checklist of aroma, mouthfeel, etc etc. – you see this sort of thing for wine tastings a lot. I’ve been to some of these things before, and frankly, it gets very silly. Someone drinks a bit of whatever it is, then rattles off “24/25 for taste, 23/25 for aroma….” it’s meaningless. For one, there’s an unspoken rule, it seems, that no score for anything drinkable should ever be lower than maybe 85. So you’re really working with a 15 point scale, not a 100 point scale. When almost everything is in the upper 80s or lower 90s, what does giving something a 65 actually mean? It just means it’s not drinkable. Why not have a scale that makes more sense? Also, are taste and aroma really equal? These sort of scoring metric often make them out to be so, but in reality, I think a lot of us put more emphasis on how a tea tastes and feels, rather than on how it smells. In the case of tea, it’s further complicated by the person preparing the brew – the same tea, in two different hands, can taste very different. Someone who doesn’t know how to handle a tea can completely botch it. If it scored a 65/100, who’s to say it’s not the brewer’s fault?

Which doesn’t leave us with a lot of options – at the end of the day, there isn’t much you can do if you’re a drinker on your own, without any real life tea friends to turn to. The answer to the question, I think, rests in 1) getting enough experience and 2) understanding what you’re trying to evaluate.

Getting enough experience is probably the more difficult of these two. I’ve said before that one should drink widely – different kinds of teas, from different vendors, at all price points and of different geographical sources. Getting stuck with one or two vendors is a terrible trap to be in, because vendors, especially for something like tea, are usually limited to a small number of suppliers. It’s not like wine where you can just order a few cases here, a few cases there, with provenance clearly traced and knowing you won’t get fake or adulterated goods. For tea, it’s more complicated than that. When you are talking about aged puerh, it gets even more complicated, as you have to factor in the risks of fakes, the quality of the storage, the price that their customers are willing to pay for the tea (not high enough, usually, outside of Asia). After those limiting factors, the vendors then select what they could offer, and will try to sell those. So even if you want to sample widely, due to these reasons and other logistical problems, vendors will have their own preferences and make choices based on those. Therefore, any vendor is really only offering a small slice of what’s possible out there. That’s why patronizing different vendors is important.

Even when you do buy lots of teas from different people, or get them through sample swaps, or whatever…. then what? I think the first thing you could do is to brew them in a way that is easily controllable. Buy a few sets of these cupping sets, for example, and start cupping your own tea. Start by doing some simple tests – use black tea, one from say a cheap teabag, one from a mainstream supermarket loose leaf brand, one from a supposedly higher grade source, and compare directly against each other. How are they different? What are the things that distinguish them? How is their durability and rebrewability? We are talking five minute brews here of 3.5 or 4g each, or some similar parameters. Make it precise. Practice it, and get used to cupping. Smell them, taste them, re-do it a few days later. Drink it hot, then wait for them all to cool and try it again. Then try it with different kinds of teas – oolongs, greens, etc. They’re all going to taste virtually undrinkable the first time you try cupping, but you’ll get used to it and soon you’ll start to figure out ways to understand what you’re dealing with – and why some teas cost more.

This way, you at least eliminate the biggest variable in changing how a tea taste – your brewing. By controlling for everything through the same process, it’s tea against tea (using the same water) and not influenced by anything else. Better yet, have someone else set it up for you so you don’t know what you’re dealing with, to avoid any preconceived notion. This is probably more work than most people are willing to put in, but I think it’s the way to go if one were to really try to gain experience. Then apply whatever it is you’ve learned from cupping to your daily drinking. How are these things reflected in the tea when brewed normally?

What to look for then? Well, the answer is pretty simple – stronger is better than weaker, more aromatic is better than less, smoother is better than rougher, longer lasting is better than not. However, there’s a balance issue here. Some teas are really aromatic, but rather thin and don’t rebrew well – a lot of green teas are like that. Among green teas, that’s fine. However, for a puerh, that’s no good, because a thin but aromatic tea will age poorly – aromatics go away over time.

So, depending on the tea, what you might want out of the tea maybe a bit different. This is really the answer to the second question – what are you looking for? For most teas, immediately consumption is the answer, so the tea that really has the best mouthfeel, taste, and aroma is going to be the winner. What’s best? Judge by cupping. Two teas that have similar levels of strength but different types of aroma – that’s a matter of taste. However, usually one is going to be better than another. There’s just no way around it.

For teas that you intend to keep for aging, however, the situation becomes a little more complicated. In this case, I’d prioritize strength and rebrewability over other factors. Aroma, as I mentioned many times before, changes and fades. If you like a newly made puerh because it’s really fragrant – drink it up fast, because if you store it it’s not going to keep that aroma for that long. Also, if a tea is really one note, aging might not be the best for its future – it can get very boring after aging. I know it’s not fashionable these days, but try some proper Dayi 7542 when they’re young. It gives you a good idea of what an ageable tea tastes like. Even those are changing a bit, but more or less they have stayed the same over the years. It’s at least a good benchmark to compare against in terms of strength. A tea that is weaker than a 7542…. I’d be careful buying those for aging.

Notice I haven’t said anything about cost here. Let’s just say this here: good tea is rarely cheap, but expensive tea doesn’t mean it’s good. Also, western-facing vendors are not offering the full range of what’s out there, because there’s not enough of a market for the real top flight stuff, despite what is sometimes marketed as such. At the same time, coming to Asia to buy directly is a recipe for disaster if you don’t really know what you’re dealing with.

Yixing inventory #17: Mengchen

First of all, happy year of the rooster to everyone!

This pot has a bit of a weird clay – looks great, but it has this really hollow sound which makes me think it’s got a crack, but I don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s just a more hollow sounding clay, I suppose, but I am hesitant to use it. The line at the bottom of the pot says “When the moon is in the middle of the sky it’s especially bright” and the name Mengchen. 170ml.

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My tea got wet

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Well… that’s sort of the idea, isn’t it, getting your tea leaves wet? In case you can’t tell what’s going on – on a recent trip, I took some tea with me to drink, since I don’t like drinking whatever the place I’m staying at might provide – it’s too much of a lottery unless I’m visiting Taiwan. So, one day we went outside, and when I came back, I met the cleaning lady still working. A short while later, right after she had left, I discovered that my bag of tea was gone. So…. long story short, we fished it out of the garbage, and she claimed that the bag – what you see above – was already that way when she came so she threw it into the trash. Now, I don’t think anyone in my family is insane enough to throw some wet, spent leaves into a bag of dry tea leaves, and I’m pretty damn sure my kids aren’t old enough to learn how to clean up yet, not this way anyway, with a stray tissue to boot. Needless to say, this cake looked nasty, wet all over, and looked like a bit of a lost cause.

Except, it’s not, because of the magic of puerh. Your tea got wet? What to do? Well, you can dry it.

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I scraped off the leaves that got wet, and the rest of the cake, since it’s the center of it anyway, the leaves are pretty dry. Some are still a bit damp, but nothing that indoor heating on a cold day can’t fix. A few hours later, everything is dry to the bone again. I brewed some tea up the next day – no problem. All good as new.

You can’t do this with loose leaf tea. If this were a bag of oolong, for example, the whole bag would’ve been toast. However, because this is a solidly compressed cake, and because the bag wasn’t doused in liquid, other than the surface layer of leaves not much else got wet. In fact, once I scraped off the wet leaves the rest already felt pretty dry to my touch. Leaving it out overnight merely made certain that everything got dry – it probably wasn’t strictly necessary. This illustrates two things: 1) puerh is pretty resistant to moisture and dampness, and it takes a lot to get a cake thoroughly wet, and 2) don’t panic when accidents happen. It’s just tea.

Is Dayi or Xiaguan worth it?

So reader Serg asked in my fake Dayi post if it’s worth it to navigate through the sea of offerings on something like Taobao looking for real Dayi or Xiaguan teas. There are actually two parts to this question – the first is if it’s worth it to navigate it through the sea of fakes, and the second is if something like Dayi or Xiaguan is inherently worth it.

First of all, buying teas off Taobao, especially if you have to go through an agent who then re-ships it to you, carries an inherent risk. What is sold is not necessarily what you see on the page, and if you go through an agent there’s no real recourse. I can at least talk to the sellers myself and get refunds, maybe (usually not) but with an agent it’s definitely impossible. Basically, if a tea normally sells for 1000, and you find it for 900, you really have no way to tell if the tea is being sold a little lower because the seller wants to get rid of it, or if it’s a fake that wants your attention. As I mentioned in my fake Dayi post, on the product page you have no real way of telling if the cake is real or not. I knew it’s fake because the price was obviously too low to be true, but it’s not going to be obvious if the price is about right.

The only way around it is this: buy from the official stores. For Dayi, you can visit the Dayi tmall store (tmall is the more respective division of Taobao). For Xiaguan I believe it’s here. They’re not going to be a deal, or have older teas, but at least you’ll know you’re not getting fakes. In short, no, don’t bother buying from random sellers on Taobao unless you’ve gambled and bought stuff from them that’s real (assuming you have a decent idea what real tastes like) and you are willing to spend that money that may end up with fakes.

The more important question is: are these teas worth it in general?

Well, I think this question is harder to answer. I generally think less of Xiaguan teas, so let’s focus on Dayi. The thing with Dayi is there are different kinds of Dayi products. There are the cooked puerh – which I will absolutely endorse so long as they’re not the special, limited production stuff that cost an arm and a leg. The regular stuff that they put out, like 7452, are quite decent and taste better than most cooked puerh out there. If you are into that sort of thing, buy them.

Now, for raw puerh, there are also the regular productions and the special ones. The ones that generate buzz these days are the special productions. Usually they give a reason to come out with them – a special event, an anniversary, or whatever. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they are producing teas that are usually one-off, and are usually limited in quantity. This has a few effects. People who buy up a lot of these early on can quite easily scoop up enough and control some portion of the market. They are easily identifiable, and so easy for consumers to notice. I think much of the reason for pumping out these special editions is to drive up market demand. If it’s just the same 7542 every year, there’s no reason for people to plump down money to buy them. Getting out these special blends that are a bit different every year will ensure that people who already have too much tea are going to keep buying – many are just stamp collectors who buy because they want some of everything, not necessarily because they want to drink them.

In the aged market, things are a bit trickier. Before about year 2000 things were simpler, there weren’t as many special pressings and what not, and teas are generally identifiable by recipe number and maybe a vague year range. That market is probably not what Serg was asking about, because the prices for those cakes are high. For the later stuff, starting especially around 2002 or 2003, you see a lot of these newer pressings that are one off. There are the hyped up stuff – Green Big Tree, Gold and Silver Dayi from 2003, etc, that are quite expensive now. There are also the less celebrated ones – teas that nobody bothered to hype. Those can still be pretty reasonable.

Why do people buy Dayi though? Well, I think there are a few reasons. First of all – if you buy something that you’d like to, maybe, resell one day, Dayi is probably better than anyone else, because there’s always a secondary market for it. A lot of people buy a lot of tea that they will never finish drinking. If you buy a private label whatever, chances are you can’t sell it off at a price that means much of an appreciation, if at all. On the other hand, if you have a whole jian of some Dayi tea from 2009, chances are you are sitting on some paper profits there. It’s just a matter of market forces.

The other thing is among all the brands, Dayi has one of the longest track records for producing tea. This is of course mostly due to history – there were only three factories making puerh back in the day, and Dayi is the one that has made the most out of it, with Kunming having died and Xiaguan generally producing teas that don’t age as well. So, in that sense, buying Dayi is the safe choice – it will age fine, into whatever Dayis tend to age into. You will probably be sitting on tea that will be decent in ten, fifteen, twenty years. It’s not going to be that ancient tree, single mountain stuff that commands top dollar these days, but that’s not why you buy Dayi. Also, there’s definitely something to be said about blends – they are more interesting and more complex. I have had many aged (now ten years or more) single estate teas that can be pretty boring and flat because it’s so one-note. Dayi will help you avoid that problem.

Ultimately, the question of whether something is worth it or not is really quite subjective – some people think it’s totally worth it to shell out thousands of dollars on a bottle of wine. Others will cringe at the idea of spending more than $20 on a bottle. It’s the same with tea. Without knowing how much money is worth it to you, and how much you value certain attributes for a tea, it’s impossible to say if something is worth it. With Dayi, you pay for a brand premium (which, of course, translates into that reselling premium). You pay for some certainty with aging characteristics. You pay for some certainty in reliability. Whether any of those are worth it… is really up to you.

300 years old tea

I didn’t see this when it came out, but apparently, they found a box of tea from 1698. I only saw this because I’m now reviewing a book called Empire of Tea: The Asian Leaf that Conquered the World. What’s interesting, first and foremost, about this tea, at least from the somewhat grainy picture that they showed, is that the leaves are still green. Moreover, that this is unmistakably green tea – small buds, processed in ways that looks to be quite similar to what we consume now as greens. The fact that it kept its colour is quite interesting. I wonder how they have stored it in the intervening years, and what process the tea was produced under. Of course it’s a pity that they won’t let anyone try it, but it’s quite interesting nevertheless.

Fake Dayi

A few months ago a local tea friend Zach and myself went to the Dayi store in Shum Shui Po to try a few teas. I also brought two things along for this tasting:

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Now at first glance this may look like a Gold Dayi on the right and the Huangjin Suiyue on the left – except these two are both fakes I bought from Taobao, deliberately, so that we can check out what fake teas are made of these days.

Those who are wrapperologists can tell you right away that the left side one is fake – because the real one has gold words that are shiny, while this one’s words in the center are not. The right side one though, at least looking at a picture like this, isn’t nearly as obvious. In fact, when we put it against the real deal at the Dayi store, it’s not immediately clear which one is real – the real one is a little brighter in colour, but this isn’t the sort of thing you’d notice unless you put a real and a fake side by side.

However, one thing was obvious:

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The real cake was a lot bigger than the fake one – and in fact, if you weigh the fake one, it only came in at 330g or so. For an older cake this is entirely possible – shrinkage happens a little, and also bits and pieces breaking off the edge. For a newish cake like this though, being off by 30g is not possible.

The back looked ok – might look a little iffy for the wrapperologists out there, but once again, not screaming fake:

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Put under a black light, the label doesn’t exactly pass the test:

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There’s a bit of that neon glow, but compared to the real thing, it’s obvious this is a fake

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You can’t do any of these unless you already paid for the fake though, so obviously, don’t buy Dayi from Taobao that are obviously too cheap to be true.

The cakes themselves also look markedly different once unwrapped. The fake/real differences are obvious.

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The taste, I have to say, was no contest. This isn’t 2004, when it was more profitable to sell decent teas under the Dayi label than your own. These days if you have decent tea, selling under your own label probably would get you more money than trying to fake the difficult-to-replicate packaging that Dayi uses. Back in the day if you were a no-name brand, you’ll have trouble moving your tea for 30 RMB a cake. These days, if you have a nice story, you can easily sell it for hundreds of RMB a cake without the trouble of faking. So, nobody does it with nice tea anymore. Instead, you get crap – which is exactly what these two fake cakes were.

The story was similar for the Huangjin suiyue, so I won’t repeat the same slew of pictures – we also didn’t take as many of that one because it was an even lower quality fake that didn’t really pass muster once you hold it in your hands. The Gold Dayi you have to do some comparison to be sure the fake is, well, a fake. Until you open the wrapper, anyway, then the dust and the terrible compression will tell you all you need to know.