Organic standards

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.

Taobao lottery: The raw and the cooked

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

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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

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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.

Mechanization, specialization, homogenization

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.

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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.

Health claims and bad marketing

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. 

Hahahahahaha.

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.

Confusions of the aged

Markets sometimes freeze. We saw that with devastating results in the market for mortgage-backed securities starting in 2007. Trading collapsed because people didn’t know how to value these assets properly. Holders of them don’t want to sell because they think they’re being lowballed, while buyers don’t want to offer more because they don’t think it’s worth any more. The lack of transactions sometimes make things worse, because without recent trades it’s even harder to evaluate how much these assets are actually worth, making the problem worse. So sometimes the default ends up being inaction. In the case of these securities, the ones who were left holding the bag ended up eating all the losses.

But this is a blog about tea. The reason I brought this up is because there’s a bit of a freeze going on nowadays as well in the market for aged oolongs in Taiwan. If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time you would know that I started seriously exploring this genre of tea beginning in 2007. Back then it was quite easy to find good aged oolong for a reasonable price. Unfortunately, that is no longer true. It’s harder now to come by decently aged (20+ years) oolongs for prices that are still pretty reasonable. People have been trying to hype up the market in recent years, leading to rising prices. China’s entry into this, of course, is a big factor, as with almost every other asset class on this planet. Chinese buyers are buying up old tea for no reason other than to have something different, and in this case they’re driving up prices here as well, just like with puerh.

There are some differences though. The first is that aged oolongs have no labels to go by, no cake shape to ponder, no wrappers and neifei to identify the tea. This means that one bag of aged oolong, at least from looks alone, don’t always look very different from another bag. Experienced drinkers can tell some clues from the dry leaves – their shape, their colour, their smell – that give you hints of what the tea is like, but for most people, this is pretty hard to do without a lot of contact with a wide variety of aged oolongs. It’s not easy. The lack of packaging means that unlike puerh, it is hard to say “I have this 30 years old competition grade oolong” that will easily convince another, probably less experienced buyer. The tea does all the talking and one is best to ignore any kind of information given to you by the seller.

This means that there’s always going to be a ceiling to the price of aged oolong – without the assurance of any kind of packaging, and with the wide variety of states in which an aged oolong can present itself, it is very hard for the common drinker to know what they’re buying, which means that people aren’t willing to pay a lot of serious money for it. Except in one case, that is – old competition teas. If you have a box of unopened 30 years old competition tea from Lugu, for example, it’s going to be worth some serious money. A jin can easily be $1000 USD or more. If the box doesn’t look like it’s been through a couple hurricanes, you can readily sell it for good money.

This creates a dilemma for the seller though. On my recent trip to Taiwan I talked to an owner of an old tea shop. He recently sold a bunch of these old competition teas to a collector/vendor for about $1200 a box each. Thing is, he has a couple bags of this tea left that is from the same year, but how should he price these? He wants to get the same money from selling these as he got from the boxed ones, because, as he claims, the tea is the same. I looked at the tea – it looks fine, smells fine, but at the price he’s quoting, it’s far too expensive. He even brewed some for me, just for sharing. It was decent, but honestly nothing too great. I’ve gotten far better, even in recent years, for a lot less money. Out of the packaging, aged oolongs just aren’t worth that much.

So instead he has these two aged oolongs he sells at a more pedestrian price (about $250 USD/jin) but which are really no good at all – it’s got a moldy smell and just isn’t very pleasant to drink. Because of the prices he was able to sell his other teas at, however, he has good reason to feel this is perfectly reasonable. I can see why, although I honestly don’t think anyone should buy these aged oolongs at these prices.

I also encountered a tea farmer who sold some family aged teas for a similarly high price, partly because the family is somewhat famous in the Dong Ding area. So, even for his 5 years old tea that barely tastes like aged anything at all, he also wants the same high price. What is someone supposed to do with that?

There’s also the aforementioned old tea competitions now – new competitions of aged teas. So instead of selling to random people, many vendors simply prefer to enter their aged oolong into these competitions. If the tea is decent, then they’re pretty much guaranteed at least a low ranking in these, which means getting official packaging, which also means that people then are much more willing to pay a higher price for the tea. So why sell it at all? Since the category is aged tea, just enter some this year, enter some next year, until you run out of your supply. It’s really pretty easy to do.

In the meantime, there’s an endless parade of stuff that is subpar – sour tea, badly roasted tea, moldy tea, stuff that isn’t really aged but pretending to be, etc. The possibilities are endless, and many of them are being peddled as aged oolong. Some of them make their way to Western vendors, at prices that are quite high but at qualities that are not. Many others are being sold locally at shops that tell a good tale. Either way, the consumers suffer. It’s too bad, but it’s all too common.

So, unlike some years ago, finding good aged oolong is no longer easy. It’s possible, but prices are now higher, and the quality is generally lower. When you find the good stuff, the vendor often doesn’t even want to sell. I guess that’s true almost universally for all things tea in the past ten years. It’s just sad to see that this is happening to the type of tea that I love to drink.

Competition trouble

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Many of you know that in Taiwan, they have tea competitions. The basic idea is that farmers would submit sample teas (ranging from 5 jin to 20 jin – one jin is 600g, depending on where, what, etc) for the competition. These got started by 1930 or so under Japanese rule. These days, some allow multiple entries while others only allow single entry per member of whatever association is holding that competition. The teas are judged anonymously, and then after multiple rounds of tastings a winner is declared with multiple winners of lower ranks underneath. Some teas are thrown out as not being good enough (and returned to the farmer). The teas that win a certain grade will then be packaged in sealed containers inside sealed boxes with dated labels, and then they would be returned to the farmers to sell.

The whole thing was supposed to encourage farmers to up their game and create better teas, and top winner for the big competitions, like the Lugu Tea Farmers Association one, could fetch prices of over 30,000 NTD (about 1000 USD) per jin in that special packaging. Compared to a normal price or about 3-4,000 NTD a jin for a top grade Dong Ding tea, that’s a big upgrade. For those 20 jin of tea the farmer is making 10x the normal amount. It also helps his sales for other stuff. Farmers who win the top prize can get a big wooden plaque to commemorate the win, and they frequently hang these in their shop to showcase their abilities. Some have so many they just stack them on the side of room because they don’t have enough space to hang all of them.

So this is all great right? Well, not so fast. There are troubles beneath the surface, some of which were topics of conversation between myself and some tea farmers/sellers that I have talked to in the last week I spent here in the middle part of Taiwan. The first is this: what you see is not really what you get. For example, when you see teas coming out of the competition for the Lugu Farmers Association, does it mean that all the tea came from Lugu? No, not at all. Many entries, if not most, use teas from higher elevation as the base for their entry. In fact, if you use local Lugu tea, you’re probably going to lose because the low elevation tea from Lugu simply don’t stand up to the much higher quality teas from higher areas. The thickness of the tea, the aroma, etc, are not up to normal judging standards. In other words, you can’t compete. So, when you end up with, say, Lugu Tea Farmers Association competition tea, know full well that the tea might be Dong Ding style (higher oxidation and roast) the base tea is probably not from the area.

Then you have the silly part – many (though not all) competitions allow multiple entries. So what happens is that a farmer can enter the same tea multiple times. This has a cost – when you submit 21 jin of tea, they only give you back 20 jin + 200 grams. They take a bit of the extra as a bit of profit, plus whatever entry fee they charged. Today someone told me that he entered a competition with ten entries, all with the exact same tea. Why? Because you never know. With just one entry, if you got unlucky and the 3g sample they picked out from your bag isn’t so great for whatever random reason, then you will get kicked out in a flash. If you were unlucky and got lined up (randomly) between two really good entries, then your tea is going to look bad in comparison. For his ten entries, he said three got rejected and the rest, some scored higher and some scored lower. It’s all a crapshoot to a certain extent. The top prize is going to be excellent, the top few levels are going to be pretty good, but there’s still a fair amount of randomness in there.

As a buyer, there’s definitely some value in these competitions – like I said, the quality of the tea that won a high level prize is going to be pretty good. You also need to pay through the roof for that – it’s going to be expensive, more than the normal stuff anyway. At the lower grades (three or two plum blossoms, for the Lugu competition) they are going to be comparably priced to the normal price for these teas. It’s a bit of an assurance, in some ways.

At the same time though, there are problems. First of all, you don’t really know exactly what you’re getting – unless you happen to be with the guy who made the tea, you’re not going to get to sample it. So you’re buying blind, really. There’s also that price premium, which for a normal drinker is really not worth paying – you can usually get good quality tea for less money if you know what you’re doing. Of course, since all oolongs look similar, it’s quite hard to do in practice, especially when it’s through multiple layers of middlemen and repackaging. People buy competition tea partly for this assurance. Partly though, it’s also for gifting – when you gift someone a box of unopened competition tea you’re basically telling them exactly how much you paid for the tea, since the prices are set.

There’s also the even more confusing competition for things like aged oolong. Here it’s really a crapshoot – you don’t even know what style of tea you’re getting. There are so many possible permutations – original roast level, age, area of origin, etc – none of which will be apparent to you (or anyone else, for that matter). It’s one thing to have aged competition tea from the past that are now old, it’s another to have a competition for aged tea. Unless you can sample from the source (that’s what the extra 200g is for) buying aged oolong competition tea is a fool’s errand.

Maliandao, ten years later

My first ever visit to Maliandao tea market in Beijing was in 2006, when I first arrived there as a young PhD student doing research for my dissertation. This was the heyday of the puerh boom, when prices of teas could literally double every week or two. As a budding tea addict, I spent quite a few weekends visiting the tea markets since the archives and libraries were closed on Saturdays and Sundays (well, they still do, mostly). I wrote my first physical description of the street here, with an update four years later here – and photos here. You can see how the street changed in the four years between those two posts. Some older malls died, others sprung up. Things, as they do in China, changed very quickly.

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to go visit again after a day of meetings. This was getting late by tea market standards – most malls/shops closed by 6pm, so me arriving right around then meant that most of the malls were shut. There are two important things to note though. The first is that now you can take the subway to Maliandao – a huge improvement over the previous arrangement, where only a bus or a cab would do. If you get off at the Wanzi station on line 7, you’ll be right at the entrance to Maliandao. Back in the old days there was a gate with a horse on top marking this entrance (as you can see in my first post on the street). Alas, that gate has been demolished.

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The stores lining the two sides of the street are still there, many of them the same stores as before. I am actually rather amazed that given the high turnover of the tea stores in general, that these ones have such staying power. Maybe that street-front location is actually more valuable than I think.

I don’t really see many new developments this time – I think there’s one on the right hand side that’s new, but otherwise things have stayed more or less the same as before. When I first came here, you felt like you were on the outskirts of the city – there were some highrises, but most of the buildings were low and old. The tea malls were mostly either glorified sheds or, in many cases, open air rows of stores. Nowadays, those have mostly been replaced by highrises and especially residential developments. There’s also a fancy mall now right across the street from Chayuan at the end of the street. Back then when I visited eating was always a bit of a problem – the restaurants were pretty dodgy. Now the options are quite varied.

I did visit Xiaomei’s store. As I mentioned last time I saw her, she’s now the mother of three and has actually returned to her hometown to help take care of her kids, with her brother now manning the store (and soon to be father himself). Business, he said, is slow, especially after the anti-corruption crackdown so that people are buying less gifts than before. So he’s taken to selling stuff, including tea and teaware, on WeChat through an auction service. I notice that many of the stores around him look dead – maybe not quite literally, but tired, old, and not doing a lot of business, it seems. Their store is basically no longer selling any newer puerh – they still have some old stock from years ago, but nothing new since about 2011. Instead, they mostly sell white teas, focusing on the lower end stuff that sell for less than 100 RMB per 500g. He also mentioned how a lot of stores that borrowed money a few years ago are now having trouble repaying the banks – they take a pretty high interest rate and if you have most of your capital tied up in overpriced tea, you’re in trouble.

I walked around a bit more, peering into some fancy looking stores that were still open but not going into any. I know that most of these places would have exorbitant price tags, with new cakes selling for 1000 or more a cake. I honestly don’t have any interest in stuff like this – I can find teas like that anywhere, and I’m not that confident in finding stuff that is actually worth buying. Whereas in my younger days I probably would’ve happily sat down at any and all stores, asking to try some of their teas, I no longer really feel the need to bother tasting. The prices of new teas are so out of whack that I often find cheaper stuff that are a few years older. Since that’s the case, why do I need to chase new teas?

I did sit down at one store that looked interesting in Chayuan, at least among the stores that are still open (used to be that all the stores would be open pretty late – not anymore). I tried a couple things there – unimpressive 2007 teas that don’t have anything special over any other tea I can find easily, for the same kind of price.

As the market sorted itself out, I think the tea market is increasingly similar to other consumable goods – there’s the high end, the mid end, and the low end, and the lines are quite clear. A store like Xiaomei’s is very much in the low end – cheap tea, sold at a small profit, and going for volume. There are lots of high end stores in China too – teas that are supposed to be rare, exquisite, etc, selling for ridiculous sums. There’s also the vast middle – most of which is mediocre, but offered at mediocre prices. Thing is, back in 2006, when the market was probably best described as frenetic, there was a lot of mixing going on – and in a way, there were a lot more opportunities to find hidden gems. Now there are not going to be many hidden gems anymore – if you want good quality, expect to pay for it. Except, of course, you’re in China, so even if you pay you’re never sure if you’re getting what you were promised. That’s true of the food in front of you, and certainly true of the tea you’re buying. If someone sells you a tea and tells you it’s from ancient trees in Guafengzhai, for example, and wants 5000 RMB for that cake, could you really tell if the story checks out just by drinking the tea?

So in some ways I left Maliandao this trip a little sad – I felt a strong sense of nostalgia for the old, crazy tea market that was always abuzz with price changes and people hunting for good tea. That energy has gone, and is probably never coming back. I miss it.

YYX tasting

In response to my post about the YYX, one reader suggested that Phyll and I should do a Google hangout session. Google hangout is useful, but it’s not ideal for tea session – the most important issue is that you are not drinking the same cup. Even if you measure everything down to the exact decimal and brew using the exam same parameters and the same teaware, at the end of the day you’re not drinking from the same leaves and so will not share exactly what you have. Drinking in person is always better.

So obviously, the solution is for me to fly to LA and join Phyll and Will to have a tea session together instead. Will’s joining is fortuitous – not just because he’s another old tea friend from the area, but because he also possesses a few cakes of YYX – in his case he bought it from the Best Tea House directly in 2010, and then stored in his home in LA ever since. So in some ways his tea offers yet another example of differing storage of YYX. His storage condition can be called natural – while it was briefly stored in a pumidor, for most of its life the tea has just sat in a (mostly) closed cabinet in his home in Los Angeles with no additional moisture. I’d presume it’s air conditioned in the summer months.

We started our session with the comparison tasting – it would be bad otherwise if we leave it to the middle or the end of the session, when we might already be tea-fatigued. Instead of drinking it, say, competition style, we decided to drink them serially. Will’s was the first. One of the most obvious things to note about his sample is that it has some smoke – the smoke is fairly obvious and is noticeable even before brewing. The tea’s astringency and bitterness come through. Once you swallow it turns to a nice huigan that has some legs. We didn’t use a lot of leaves – 4g for a small gaiwan. We drank about 7-8 infusions before it becomes more or less flavoured sweet water, at which point we moved on. The wet leaves for Will’s sample are still greenish in tone (C in the photo).

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Second up was Phyll’s (A). There is one problem with Phyll’s tea, stored in his offsite wine cellar. The wine cellar uses wood drawers for the storage unit, and over the years it seems like the tea has picked up a fair amount of the wood smell. It was apparent to me when I unpacked the cake that was sent to me by Phyll, and I notified him as much. Leaving it around my house for two months before tasting it didn’t really diminish the wood smell, so it will probably take longer for it to happen. The wood smell and taste dominates the first few infusions, overpowering almost everything else. The tea is smoother than Will’s, with less astringency and less obvious bitterness, although that may have something to do with it being the second tea we’re drinking (the bitterness, anyway). There’s no aroma that is discernible because of the strong wood smell. The leaves are noticeably darker with a slightly more leathery texture. After about 4-5 infusions the wood smell/taste recedes and some of YYX’s base notes show up, similar to Will’s tea. In that they are not too different. The wet leaves are dark.

My cake came third in our tasting (B in photo). The first thing that Will noticed, as he was the one prying the tea from the cake, was that it was looser – the cakes have loosened over the years and it’s easier to pry open. I noticed the same when I tried the tea at home. The tea has lost any sense of astringency and is also not very bitter anymore. There is some fruity/plummy taste, and sweet in the back. There’s also a touch of sourness. The body seems slightly thinner, and as Phyll notes it’s lost the vibrancy of youth in comparison with the less-aged samples. Once you drink enough infusions, the tea reverts to similar base notes that you find in the other YYX we tried already, with maybe a touch more age to it than the others. The wet leaves are about the same colour as Phyll’s, surprisingly.

So, what’s there to learn here? Well, first, that there is a real difference among the teas. However, the differences are not huge – they are easily discernable to anyone who’s paying attention, but you can also tell, after some drinking, that they have the same base. Mine is the furthest along in the aging path – there’s no doubt about that. It has developed some of the notes that you start to get when a puerh has been aged long enough – plum, fruit, etc, and lost that more floral and astringent character of younger teas. Environment certainly matters – if you don’t believe that the smell of the storage environment can change how a tea tastes, a smell of Phyll’s cake will convince you otherwise. He’s already moved the cake out of the storage, but it will probably be some time yet before it can actually get rid of that smell, and chances are there will always be a trace of it remaining given how long it’s been in contact with that smell.

I do wonder how much aging has happened to Will’s cake – is it more or less in the same condition as when he bought it in 2010? The existence of smoke, the green wet leaves, and the astringency suggest that not a lot of aging has happened since. It’s great if you love your tea young, but I also suspect that it’s not so good if you like your teas aged and mellow. The tea doesn’t taste like a 15 year old tea.

Phyll’s cake, despite the extra wood smell, is smoother than Will’s. The 10 years it spent in the offsite storage with relatively higher humidity has done something to the tea. The low temperature probably prevented it from being more aged-tasting. It’s an interesting mid-point between Will’s tea and mine, and altogether somewhat different.

It will be interesting to try Phyll’s cake again after say a year or two, let the wood air out, and see if it changes/improves. It will also be interesting, now that I possess a cake, to see how the one stored in Hong Kong will diverge from the ones stored in LA. Maybe we can report back on this experiment after another year or two and see what happens then.

As for the rest of the tea session, we drank a mid 90s 7532 that tastes somewhat cooked due to storage conditions, the 2005 Yisheng that tastes classically Yiwu, 2006 Yangqing Hao Chawangshu, which is similar to the Yisheng except even smoother, but for me lacking a punch. We finished off with a very high end dancong that I procured a while ago that has exceptional qi. The teas were all decent, but it’s the companionship that is the best. It’s good to see old friends again, and now we all have old(ish) tea to share. I look forward to our next tea session!

Separated at birth

People who read this blog probably have all spent at least some time worrying about storage conditions for their puerh tea. There are lots of people who have written lots of things on this subject. Some are plain wrong. Others more plausible. At the end of the day though, there isn’t much hard data to go by, so it all ends up being a bit of a “he said, she said” sort of thing out there.

So it is a bit of a good fortune that I am now in possession of two cakes from the same batch that have been stored separately for over 10 years to compare. The cake in question is the Mengku Yuanyexiang (YYX). It gained fame originally because some people hyped it up around 2005/6 through the puerh magazines and online forums. The tea was produced by the Shuangjiang Mengku Rongshi factory, and exists in a thin and a thick paper version, with the thin paper version being naturally stored while the thick paper is traditionally stored. There was only one batch of each ever made, and while prices shot up when it became famous, the tea never really took off after that and is currently still on sale at places like Taobao for about $250 USD, although there seems to be only a few cakes left. Honestly, at that price it’s not really worth it, especially if the seller is an unknown quantity.

The cakes here in question come from two sources. One is mine – I bought mine from Taobao many years ago for something like $30 USD. The other cake is from a good old friend Phyll, who is an active photographer based in LA and who used to, many years ago, run the tea blog Phyll’s blog. He even has a tasting note for the YYX here. He bought it from Guang of Houde when they used to sell this tea. We have each acquired our cakes about 9-10 years ago, and have stored them since.

My storage is quite simple – it has always lived in Hong Kong since about 2007, in a normal environment, no extra humidity, no climate control, nothing more than just “leave it out there and let it age”. It’s mostly lived in closed shelves/boxes, but not air-tight ones. Phyll, on the other hand, has mostly stored his tea in his off-site wine storage unit with a permanent 15 degrees celcius temperature and a constant 75% RH. So while he lives in LA, this is not LA storage but really a controlled climate storage.

So about a month or so ago we decided to swap teas – we traded cakes, basically, since we each have more than one. I take my photos, usually, but since he’s a professional with much better equipment, this is what the teas look like.

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A is his, B is mine. There are a few things to notice here – mine is shinier, and it’s not an optical illusion or lighting problem. It really is. The brown is slightly darker/browner on mine as well, while his has a slightly greener undertone to the leaves. The paper on mine is more torn up, but that’s really just because the paper is extremely thin and tears up with any movement – and I’ve moved the tea a couple times. Aside from that, there’s no obvious difference. They smell a bit different, but that’s to be expected.

I actually have not tasted the teas yet. I have been holding on to the tea, trying to get it acclimated to Hong Kong before drinking. Sometimes air travel and what not can change things in the taste of a cake. I also just haven’t had the opportunity to really sit down and drink teas side by side. I hope to do so in the near future, so stay tuned.

Dealing with traditionally stored teas

A reader wrote in recently asking me about how to handle cakes that have been traditionally stored. The cake has obviously been through some traditional storage, as you can see here

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First of all, it’s useful to get a sense from looking and smelling the cake to see how heavy the storage was – how wet, for how long, basically. There are some hints. You can smell it. You can observe the amount of mold on the surface, although that’s not a good indicator because some people actually use brushes to brush off most of the spores. You can also open the cake up a bit to see what it looks like inside – if it’s really white inside or not. Really heavily stored cakes also often have some warping – they get so wet that they warp under pressure of all the other cakes on top and sometimes around them. This doesn’t look too bad.

The reader actually had two questions – will this cake contaminate the other cakes he owns, and how to deal with this – to make it get better, I suppose?

The first thing to note is that since mold can grow on anything, just putting your moldy cake in the same storage space as your other cakes is not automatically going to cause mold on other cakes, unless your storage environment allows it to happen (wet, basically). At 30% RH, that’s not going to happen to this reader’s storage situation. It could, however, impart a bit of a smell to the other cakes in the same container, so my advice was to put it separately, perhaps in something like an unsealed cardboard box, and just forget about it. This comes to the second point – often times the biggest problem with these traditionally stored teas, especially if they haven’t been out of their wet storage phase for too long, is that all you can taste is the musty, damp forest floor smell. The rich flavours that you can get from traditionally stored teas aren’t apparent yet, especially the sweeter flavours. To get rid of the sometimes pungent smell, the best way to deal with it is to just let it air out a bit. This is the one time when you do want a bit of airflow or at least air exchange. It takes time, but eventually the really obvious musty smell will go away and you will have something that’s more drinkable. These are probably drinkable now, but it should get better with age.

I also have friends who would brush off the spores themselves, although for your sanity and health I’d do that outdoors. Get a new toothbrush and just lightly brush them off. It really won’t change much of anything but it might look better, and to some people that’s actually an important psychological step in dealing with the tea, it seems.

When drinking traditionally stored teas, it’s often not a bad idea to throw away the first two steeps. A good old friend of mine who grew up drinking these often said the real taste doesn’t start to show up until about steep five. There’s a certain truth to that – everything before is really the storage talking. Definitely rinse the tea, probably twice, before trying it. If it’s still super pungent, you might want to let it sit some more, or throw away another infusion. Part of the fun is learning how they transform, and traditionally stored teas change in ways that are more obvious than naturally stored teas.

Finally, I should add that one of the most interesting things you can do is to try to find traditionally stored cooked puerh – they are actually quite different, and richer, than naturally stored ones, which tend to be rather boring. The traditional storage process also tend to get rid of the nasty, pondy taste. They also come cheaper. I’m not sure if any vendor out there is selling something like this, but if not, they should look for it because I think there’s a market for this stuff.