A Tea Addict's Journal

Entries from June 2016

Organic standards

June 21, 2016 · 9 Comments

Everyone likes the idea of organic foods. No pesticides, natural fertilizers, etc. What’s not to like?

Well, cost is the first issue. An organic farmer who doesn’t use pesticides is going to have productivity issues. For tea, it can be a pretty devastating drop in overall production. Mr. Gao from Shiding, who grows tea more or less wild on his farm, once told me that his yield is about 10% of what other farmers around him get. A more “conventional” organic farmer in central Taiwan told me that he’s probably getting 30-40% of what he would if he were to farm things conventionally. If you go to the farms you can see the bugs and the weeds – things that hinder productivity in terms of raw tea production. Leaves that are bitten may have that interesting taste, but when whole trees are decimated by bugs that are eating almost all your buds, then you’ve got no tea left to make that beautiful Dongfangmeiren with.

Which means this is all going to cost more. So on the one hand, we love the idea of organic teas, but on the other, are we willing to pay more for it? The taste difference may or may not be apparent – there are so many factors involved in tea production that it’s hard to judge exactly what’s due to the farming methods and what’s due to craft post-harvest. Also, if a farmer’s productivity is only 10% normal, are you really going to be willing to pay 10x the price to get the same amount of tea? That can get quite expensive very quickly.

Conventional farmers, who are still most of them, don’t really seem to think there’s much of a problem. The price pressures of cheaper alternatives – in Taiwan’s case, Vietnam teas and lowland, machine harvested teas – make it so that they feel they just need to maximize the production to get what they can out of the farms. These are not farmers making a lot of money selling a few kilos from supposed ancient tree teas in Yunnan. Regular teas in Taiwan is not very expensive and they harvest 5-6 times a year just to make costs and make a living. The transition to organic methods is very tricky and involves a few years of really low production as the farm recalibrates to a new normal. From what I understand, that’s not an investment most people are willing to make.

More interestingly, during one of my conversations with a farmer who does some organic farming, he said it would actually be better if the organic standards were loosened a bit. At first this sounded counter-intuitive – wouldn’t that be worse? But he has a point as he tried to explain to me. Basically, right now the standards are fairly stringent. That’s great for those of us who are worried about things like pesticides, etc, but in many cases these small-plot farms are right next to other farmers that are practicing conventional farming methods, often farming things that aren’t even tea. If your next door neighbour sprays pesticides, you need them to tell you the day before so you can prepare. You want to make sure that they don’t end up on your tea that then end up in the sample bag that gets sent to the testing centers for organic certification. His argument was this – stringent standards makes it too hard and too risky for people to transition. If you tried, and then failed, then you just invested a lot of time and lost income for basically nothing. That’s not good – and especially no good if you weren’t the one cheating, but you just got caught up because something happened around you. So, his logic goes, if the standards were a little looser, more farmers would actually try to participate and in the end, more organically farmed teas will be available, which is better for everyone. It wasn’t what I expected, but it was a refreshing look at this issue.

Categories: Teas

Taobao lottery: The raw and the cooked

June 15, 2016 · 3 Comments

Every so often I buy some tea from Taobao. Sometimes it’s a cake I already know and like and am just stocking up a little more. More often it’s something random – given that there’s MiniN and MicroN in the picture, my days of roaming the tea market for days on end is more or less over (at least for now). So, instead, I get to virtually shop online through the wonder that is Taobao, where Jack Ma claims the fake goods are better than the real deal.

Well, here’s a fake that isn’t better than the real deal. The reason I bought this cake is because the wrapper suggests that this may be related to a small boutique whose tea I have some faint interest in, and that this tea is sold as a 2003 tea. Given the lowish price (under 100 RMB) I figured I can buy a lottery ticket. Worst case, it’s just a bad tea and I chalk it up to eating a bad meal somewhere, or something. The cake looks ok-ish in person

The smell though put me off. When I smelled the tea after it arrived it smelled like cooked puerh, which is odd, since this is supposed to be a raw tea. There was no hint of rawness in the smell – none of that sweet aroma of aging tea, or the youthful greenness that you get with a younger tea (as befits a Kunming stored puerh). Instead, just a faint whiff of cooked puerh. I chalked it up to potentially the couple bags of cooked puerh samples the seller threw in with the cake.

There are some oddities on the cake itself – hard to see with any kind of picture but apparent if you examine it in detail. There are some leaves that look funny, with little white dots that are uncharacteristic of dry Kunming storage. But, that alone isn’t going to be enough to warn anyone.

Then I brewed it, and that’s when everything became really obvious. The tea is actually a mix – a mix of raw and cooked leaves, to be exact. The tea brews brown, like a cooked tea, and smells of cooked puerh. There’s no hint of rawness in the tea. The wet leaves look like this

You can see that there’s a mix here – the cooked tea is the dark stuff, and this is the variety that is very cooked – they’re carbonized, hard leaves that don’t really bend, not the soft stuff you might see from Menghai. In other words, this is cheap stuff. The raw tea is probably worse – I suspect it is brewed tea leaves that are then dried again, because if they were using new leaves there’s no way that the tea doesn’t impart any taste, but as it is there’s almost no raw, new tea taste to it despite the tea consisting of mostly raw leaves. I only took a couple small sips before dumping the whole lot.

What’s the lesson here? Well, anything is possible, even stuff you thought impossible. Judge a tea on its own merits and not on what the vendor is telling you, and sometimes the truth is pretty disgusting. And Jack Ma is wrong at least when it comes to tea – the vast majority of the fakes are horrible things that should never be drunk.

Categories: Teas
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Mechanization, specialization, homogenization

June 7, 2016 · Leave a Comment

Forty years ago, almost everything related to tea production in a place like Taiwan was done by hand. Leaves were hand picked, they were withered by hand, kill green was done manually, and then rolled by hand and then dried also manually. There were tools, of course, that helped one along in the process, but by and large they were not mechanized and required physical labour. As you can see below from this video of traditional rolling techniques, it’s hard, hard work.

Soon after a plethora of machines were introduced and the toughest processes, such as kill green, rolling, and drying were handled mostly by these machines. This isn’t to say the process isn’t still physically demanding, but it probably beats trying to roll tea leaves with hands and feet for hours at a time. Those who grew up on tea farms and who are 40-50 years old now are probably the last generation who remember (and have tried their hands at) making tea the old fashioned way.

These days there’s a mechanized farm tool for every step of the process, although not all of them are used all the time. Take picking for example. There are lots of harvesters out there. They range from smallish hand held machines that look like big horizontal hair clippers to vehicles that are small combines. A farm can choose to use a harvester some of the time, but not all the time. One farmer told me, for example, that for the summer picking they use the harvester because it’s just faster and easier, and since summer tea is crap (and only sells for cheap) there’s no reason to do anything more for it. On the other hand, for spring and winter harvest when the prices can be better, you want to have the leaves picked by hand so that the quality comes out higher. Machine harvested teas just aren’t as good.

There are, however, some steps that are always done with the aid of machines these days. Generally speaking, kill green, rolling, and drying are all done by machines. More importantly, they are done by people who often aren’t involved in the other processes.

Here’s the thing. In the old days when everything was done by hand, you gather the family and your hired help to do whatever you need to do to harvest the tea and process them efficiently. There’s only so much time for this sort of thing after you picked the leaves, and because of constraints like weather, you only have certain days when this was possible. You get all the manpower you need, pick the tea, wither them, let them bask in the sun for a little bit, wait for the oxidation to kick in to the right amount, kill green, roll them, dry them. All this was done in house, because if it’s all requiring physical labour then that’s where you’re going to find that labour. Even kids helped out if they could, and young men and women were hired to help do the parts that need extra hands – picking and rolling, for example. Roasting can wait, everything else had to be done immediately once the leaves are off the trees.

Nowadays though, most farmers no longer do the middle parts. Some only harvest and then hand the rest of the processing to people who specialize in them. Others might also take care of the withering but not what comes after. Part of the reason is mechanization – there’s no real reason for every farmer to buy a rolling machine or a kill green machine that’ll be left unused most of the time, whereas people who invested in them have a reason to basically rent it out to others who don’t own them. It makes sense – why would a village with 100 tea farmers have 100 rolling machines? That would make no sense.

This kind of specialization though has a cost, albeit not necessarily one that is very apparent. What we are seeing is a kind of homogenization of tea production. Back in the day, when a farmer was involved in all steps of the production process, the tea really was his – the taste you get at the end is his and his alone. These days, farmer A’s tea may taste very similar to farmer B’s tea because they both sent their tea to be processed by processor C and dryer D. What you’re tasting is therefore the combined work of all these people, and not just a farmer A or farmer B’s product.

I asked a farmer what would happen if he owned a rolling machine or a kill green one and invited a technician to come in to help. He said they’d simply refuse – there’s no reason for them to make their way to an unfamiliar setup to do work when they can easily do what they do at their own place, or at a place where they can work while having the farmers bring in the tea. This farmer I talked to still insists on withering his own leaves by hand, but even that’s less common these days. Between the difficulty of doing this and the downward price pressure of import Vietnamese tea, there just isn’t a lot of good reasons for someone to keep insisting on making things on their own.

There are, of course, skills that remain in the hands of those who produce tea and will change the way it tastes. For example, roasting is a big part of the final taste of the product for Taiwanese oolong. Roasting, for the most part, is usually still done in house. In fact, a few of the farmers I met on this recent trip didn’t want me to see their roasting process. I don’t think they have much to fear. Aside from the obvious fact that I wouldn’t be able to reproduce whatever they were doing even if I got to see all of it in detail, this is very much a process that requires lots of hands on experience to learn, and especially the ability to adjust on the fly based on weather, the tea’s condition, etc. These are things that an outsider cannot easily figure out quickly. Maybe someone who’s well steeped in the arts of charcoal roasting can glean something from this, but I doubt it.

So when you see a vendor tell you “this tea was produced by Mr. X of Y”, in almost all cases it means the tea was grown on Mr. X’s farm and perhaps Mr. X was involved in the processing of the tea at some point, but for the most part the actual processing of the leaves are usually left to someone else to do. There are a few exception to this rule. Mr. Gao, an organic farmer based in Shiding near Taipei, is one, but his tea is exorbitantly expensive as a result of his wild farming techniques and hand made processes. One could have a debate about whether or not it is worth it, but a tea that is easily 4-5x normal prices (or more) isn’t going to find a very wide audience. Outside of that kind of very specialized production, most teas you drink are, to some degree, a commercialized production that is run mostly on volume, rather than specific “craft,” whatever that is. There’s nothing wrong with it – being able to work with a kill green or rolling machine skillfully is also something you need to master through experience and time. It’s just that there’s a certain homogeneity to this process that is obscured by the smallholding farmer arrangement you find in a place like Taiwan. Some farmers were lamenting to me the loss of individual taste. In our industrialized world though, maybe it’s the price we have to pay.

Categories: Teas
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Health claims and bad marketing

June 2, 2016 · 16 Comments

A few months ago I noticed that my blog’s email address was harvested by Misty Peak and they started sending me junk mail. I never paid them much attention until their email about storing puerh that’s full of errors arrived at my inbox. Well, yesterday I just got another rather amusing email. This one’s about health claims, arguably the worst of all marketing ploys for tea. Let’s examine the email, shall we?

Like the water we drink, the food we eat, and even the medication we may use, quality is key when selecting and consuming Pu’er tea. It is very often prescribed for cholesterol, weight loss, high blood pressure, anemia, diabetes, and poor circulation, so understanding how to actually use this tea as a tool is important. 

Prescribed? Really? Who “prescribes” tea, specifically for the ailments named? Yes, there’s some (hard to prove) evidence out there that tea in general may help, but to compare it to medicine, well…

Then we got “5 tips” which, of course, is where the gems are

1- How much to drink?

Read your body in the beginning and give careful attention to how you feel before, during, and after drinking this tea. It has tremendous energy, so give it the attention it deserves when first introduced to it. We suggest atlas 3 cups/pots per day, each being 5-8 ounces. Simply pouring this tea a few times a week will not give you the desired results for your health, although it will be enjoyable. Find the time to begin to incorporate the tea into your day. 

Translation: Drink a lot of this tea, and I mean a lot. Usually when referring to “cups” like this the text is trying to say that we should be preparing a fresh cup/pot of it using fresh leaves. Three rounds a day is quite a bit of tea no matter how you drink your tea.

2- When to drink our tea?

It is best to drink the tea when your stomach is not completely empty, unless you plan to eat shortly thereafter. Three times a day is recommended, at least. For weight loss, drink Pu’er tea 20-60 minutes after your meals, giving it its wonderful ability to flush the body of oils and cholesterol that may have been consumed while eating. It will also give you a clean feeling. This is not always easy to manage, so if you can only find one or two times to enjoy the tea, make the time worthwhile. Turning off a phone or finding a relaxing place to drink makes the experience more enjoyable and the energy of the tea stronger. Drinking our Pu’er tea will give you a great relaxing, even meditative, feeling, so learn how you feel first with the tea and go from there. We recommend starting your day with it, even if that means drinking it with your morning coffee, if need be. 

That last line is where things start to really go wrong. Up till now, the email is mostly just junk marketing material that we see all the time – tea may be healthy for you, etc etc (more on that later). Suggesting people should drink tea AND their coffee together in the morning, however, can be a little more dangerous – puerh can be pretty punchy, caffeine wise, and getting an unwanted caffeine buzz is no joke, coming from someone who’s experienced it before. In serious cases it can lead to uncontrollable muscle contractions and heart palpitations. But, of course, they have to keep suggesting that you should drink loads of their tea.

3- Can I drink too much tea?

The simple answer is yes, but that would take a tremendous amount of consumption. The tea is high in L-Theanine, which has many health benefits, but one of the greatest benefits of it is how it contracts some of the negative properties of caffeine. So if one is sensitive to caffeine, drinking a great amount of this tea will still be less harmful because of this amino acid that is present.  Consuming too much liquid, liters and gallons at a time, is absolutely not suggested. The average tea drinker in China will consume upwards of 2-4 gallons of tea in a given day, so consuming a few extra cups for us would not be considered harmful, but do pay attention to your body. 

And continuing from the last line of that last section, here’s where they go off the deep end. L-Theanine can “contracts [sic] some of the negative properties of caffeine”? Where on Earth did they come up with that idea? I did a quick search on Pubmed, and this article suggests that presence of both amplify the effects of the other. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything suggesting that L-Theanine can counteract anything from caffeine – that idea is simply ridiculous. To suggest people who might be caffeine sensitive that it’s ok to drink lots of puerh is irresponsible at best. Also, L-Theanine is present in every tea, in similarly small amounts. There’s really not much meaningful difference between one type of tea or another if you’re talking about things like caffeine and L-Theanine content, especially since the biggest variable is how much leaves you’re using and not the type of tea you’re drinking (one would often use more leaves to prepare some types of teas than others, for example).

And 2-4 gallons? Did anyone stop for a second and think about how much liquid that is? The average person doesn’t drink 2 gallons of water in a day. Even if they really meant liters (three obvious typos so far, time to proofread your emails) it’s still a lot of tea – irresponsibly so when asking the question of “can I drink too much tea.”

4- Is it okay to mix the tea with other teas?

No. Plain and simply, think of tea (and all foods) as medicine. When we unknowingly combine or blend them and their properties (warming/cooling/energizing/relaxing/ect), we are creating chemical reactions within our bodies that may not work well together. Teas are often blended in tea shops or malls haphazardly, only basing the blends of what tastes good, rather than what is chemically beneficial to our bodies. Our tea is completely unblended and unaltered from its raw state. It is picked, fired, rolled by hand, then dried under the sun, as it has been for thousands of years. It is best to not add herbs or other teas to the tea if not experienced. 


5- Is any Pu’er tea okay?

Just because it is Pu’er  (Pu-erh) tea does not mean it is good for you. In fact, the most counterfeited tea in the world is Pu’er tea. Doctors recommend us to drink 8 cups of water each day, but the real key is to consume 8 clean cups of water each day; the same goes for tea. Consuming tea that has been treated with careful attention is critical. Our tea is hand-picked, hand processed, never touched a machine or a chemical, organic, and picked from trees older than America. Quality is key if we want great results. 

I’m pretty sure that the spring 2016 tea they’re selling for $55 per 200g is not from trees as old as claimed – the current market is such that this kind of price really isn’t going to get you very good raw materials, certainly not early spring materials from trees of this age. So claiming that other people are potentially selling counterfeits while theirs is the genuine article really rings hollow. Twodog recently wrote a piece on the subject so there’s no need for me to repeat the information, but needless to say, age statements on trees are mostly overinflated, with Verdant being a prime example of ridiculous age statements and these guys not far behind. I recently had a chat with a tea vendor who started pressing cakes a dozen years ago, and a tree that’s over a thousand years old would yield, at most, a couple kilos of finished tea leaves for pressing. Verdant’s 10kg per tree output – well, they’re selling a fantasy. Misty Peak has proven to be pretty good at ridiculous marketing statement as well, and this is yet another case of that.

In conclusion: I should add that I have never bought anything from them, nor do I intend to. It seems like most vendors want to claim some health benefits for tea – weight loss, diabetes, etc. There’s actually not much real research on the subject that proves that drinking tea will do any of these things. Most research (and I’ve looked at quite a few papers of this type) are about how specific chemical compounds may have some effects on helping to treat certain diseases, with most of this research done on mice. Usually the dosage of these chemicals are much higher than what you could possibly get from drinking. L-Theanine, for example, is regularly used in 150 or 200mg dose, when one gram of tea only contains about 6mg. You’re not going to start drinking 30g of tea a day (assuming 100% extraction/absorption, which isn’t going to happen) just to try to get 200mg into your body.

Actual clinical research on tea’s health effect on the body is very thin – for example this recent paper talks about diabetes and the lack of studies of how tea may or may not help. The few studies I’ve seen before that actually try to study real people drinking tea usually have one or two cup a day as the limit, mostly because it’s very hard to find people who would drink more a day on a regular basis – it’s not something you want a lot of. The results are usually mixed, because life’s complicated and nailing down tea as the main reason why there’s an effect is hard to prove. People who drink tea in the West on a regular basis, for example, may tend to be people who eat healthier diets or predisposed to certain things, so these complicate the results. Misty Peak’s marketing is misleading, but worse, it also suggests practices that can be downright dangerous for some people, and is quite irresponsible in making unsubstantiated claims. It’s one thing to spew nonsense about storing puerh – worst case is you get some moldy tea if you really left it on your porch open to the elements. It’s quite another thing to tell people who are caffeine sensitive it’s ok to down three cups of puerh a day.

Categories: Teas
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