What it is…..

is the Mengku Yuanyexiang (YYX), thick paper, I believe.  A friend of mine gave me half a cake, which by today’s price is probably worth a few million.   YYX leaves on the left, cheap, cheap Chinatown cooked puerh on the right.

The reason I thought it was interesting was because within that tea, you can taste, very distinctly, the wet storage that went on.  It has that musty smell and taste that’s only attainable through that kind of storage.  Some people hate it, but others think that true puerh should only taste like that.

The difference between it and the thin paper, supposedly dry stored (in actuality less-wet stored), is not all that great.  I find the thin paper, which I tried multiple times and I own a few of, to be harsher.  It’s not the best tea — it’s merely good.

The problem with this kind of tea is that it’s very much a “brand name” tea.  It’s famous because of various types of promotional things that have been done to it — magazines, word of mouth, etc.  Hou De sold out both pretty much the instant he put them up.  It’s really quite amazing.  The fact is though that teas like this are not that great — you can probably find, after some searching, some tea on taobao that costs only a fraction but taste just as good.

However, what’s missing is the “celebrity” factor.  When you drink the YYX you know it’s good — because so and so expert said so.  When you drink this other stuff that costs only a fraction, you don’t know that it’s good…. because, well, nobody told you that.  What’s in the price is that stamp of approval.  As we all know, such stamps of approval tend to be abused, because there’s real money to be made there.

That’s why I normally don’t go for teas like this, and only drink things that I myself find pleasing.  I also tend not to talk about them all that much, male urine aside.  I know what I like, which may not be what you like.  What’s important is developing your own sense of what you find to be good taste, rather than to follow what other teach you to be great.

Chinatown tea

I was in Philly the past weekend for a conference, and for much of the time I was there I spent in the hotel or in Chinatown, which was right next to it.  Normally I’d bring my own tea to things like this, so I don’t have to endure bad teabags with coffee-flavoured water (when will these places ever learn????).  However….. I forgot to bring my own stash this time.

So…. I was out of tea, and I don’t want to drink that nasty, nasty stuff brewed with coffee water.  What do I do?

Chinatown

Many of you live near a Chinatown or another, and no doubt some have visited these institutions before.  I still remember when I lived near Cleveland that they had nothing but Foojoy tea and a few other horrible abominations that could pass for “tea”, but at the same time, I also remember that the first revelation I had in tea came from a longjing that I bought at the now defunct Great Wall in NYC’s Chinatown.

I ducked into an underground market in Philly’s Chinatown, and walked into their tea aisle.  It’s quite well stocked.

It’s actually extremely difficult to buy any of this stuff with any confidence, because you know that for the most part, they’re not particularly great, and since there’s no way for you to look at the leaves or taste it first, you’re really taking a gamble.  Over the years the type of tea that they sell have been upgraded, at least in terms of packaging.  Instead of the ugly little tins for the old style, CNNP brands, now you have all kinds of Taiwanese and Mainland producers who vie for your attention.

I was, at first, attracted to a tin of Keemun, thinking that you can hardly go wrong — even the worst Keemun can be pretty ok, with inferior water and what not.  Then, however, I chanced upon a tin of puerh — specifically, one that is labeled “Nuoshan pu’er cha”.  Nuo, in this case, is Nannuo’s nuo.  It reminded me of the Nor-sun that I bought a few years ago in Columbus and which turned out to be quite all right.  I took a chance and bought this, $3.98 a tin tea.

The first thing I noticed when I opened the tin is that it smells — it has this odd medicinal smell that is somehow slightly citrus like.  The leaves are very broken, as you can see.  When I tried it out, it brewed a dark, dark liquor.  It does not, however, have that fishy, pondy cooked tea taste, but it’s definitely cooked (mostly, anyway).  Once you get rid of that odd citrus smell, which disappears quite quickly, the tea is remarkably decent.  At the very least, it probably beats all these loose puerh that online stores like Adagio sell at a much higher price.

I tried it again yesterday, now that I’m back at home.  You can taste the odd citrus flavour the first infusion or two, and then it goes away.  The tea is soft and smooth, and actually delivers that nice, plummy taste in the later infusions when brewed longer.   Definitely a winner for $3.98.

Moral of the story?  Try your local Chinatown, if there’s a sizable one next to you.  You never know what you might find.

Adventures in loose puerh

They come in bags, jars, boxes, cases…. loose puerh come in all shape and sizes, and they are notoriously hard to identify if you are only looking at the dry leaves. What is this, for example?

Even without the problem of trying to identify a tea through pictures, loose puerh of all types are difficult to classify without a taste test. They all look the same, especially if they’ve been aged a bit through wet storage — dark, musty, with a fine coating of white sometimes, loose, usually broken, and nondescript. The telltale signs that you can use to identify cooked vs aged in a cake don’t work so well with loose, because they are not as obvious. Throw in the wet storage, and everything gets even harder.

It doesn’t help when you are dealing with the brewed version either

What, pray tell, is this anyway? Any number of combination of factors can give you this.

Wet leaves give you more of an answer

But even then, heavily wet stored tea, or border tea, can give you something that looks like this. Ultimately, it’s what goes in the mouth that counts, and from that I can pretty safely say this is a lightly wet stored cooked loose puerh. It has that mellowness that you only get with cooked tea — aged raw, even if heavily wet stored, doesn’t taste quite the same. Also, those tend to revert to a greener/browner complexion when brewed heavily, while this tea never did. The price is a confirmation of this: at $10 CDN/100g, it’s pretty cheap.

I got this as a sample and was asked to identify this “20 years Yiwu”. That already rings a few alarm bells — no such thing exists, not because Yiwu didn’t exist, but because back in 1989, Yiwu produced very little tea, and nobody paid attention to exactly where the tea was coming from — certainly not enough for a bag of tea to be able to trace its origins to the holiest of mountains. The leaves are quite broken, so there’s really not much you can tell from that. The price is far too cheap. Cheap things can be good, and expensive is no guarantee of quality, but known good things, such as a 20 years old Yiwu, is not likely to be knowing sold at a great discount.

Drinking puerh

Now I finally understand why people thought it was crazy to buy whole cakes, bricks, or whatever, for personal consumption. Instead, they preferred to buy loose tea, or tea that was broken up by the seller in advance.

It’s very annoying to drink things from compressed tea.

I’ve been burning through my aged baozhong stash, so in an effort to stem the tide, I thought I’d sacrifice quality by drinking….. well, cooked puerh that I have sitting around that will otherwise never be consumed. The item in question right now is a Menghai factory brick, one of those 5th grade bricks that I bought for about $4 back in 2006. I got it pretty much just for fun, and still have it around as I barely touched it. I figured, why not?

Well… turns out there’s a hassle after all. When I was drinking tea properly everyday, it wasn’t that much of a hassle to break open a cake or a brick and consume that. When you have all the tools around with you, with the tray that catches all the loose tea, with everything in place, breaking open tea is pretty simple.

When you’ve been used to just throwing some leaves into a pot and then brewing, however, breaking a brick is annoying. Flakes are everywhere. You have to break it off before you drink. It’s hard to figure out how much tea is in the (big) teapot, and so dangers of overdose is high (at least this is cooked puerh from Menghai, so it can’t go terribly wrong). It doesn’t even taste all that great. Why, oh why, would anybody bother with this crap?

Cooked puerh!

I was fishing around in my box full of weird stuff, samples, leftovers, and that kind of thing, and among them I found this

If I remember correctly, this is a sample from Aaron Fisher. I cannot for the life of me remember what this is, but sniffing it (and trying to get past the Lapsang Souchong induced smokiness — there’s a bag of LS next to it) I think this is a cooked puerh. I don’t know where it’s from. The shape is odd — there’s a sort of cylindrical shape to the original piece, I think, and this is just a small chunk of it.

I brewed it… and yes, this is probably a cooked puerh, although, it might be one of those older ones where there’s a bit of raw tea mixed in? Or stored differently? I don’t know. It is definitely a very good cooked puerh — soft, but robust, with a tinge of youth in there somewhere. It also does something that most cooked teas don’t — lasts very long, which made me think this is not cooked after all, yet there are so many things in the taste that remind me of a cooked pu. I don’t know. I should label my tea.

The wet leaves, as you can see, are dark, but not pitch black. They remain somewhat flexible. Aaron, if you’re reading this, do you remember what it is? My bad for forgetting…

A word about my tea service these days:

Trying to forego the tray was a bit of a tough decision. I remember when I first started using the tray, I found it liberating, beause I felt like I could do whatever I want and get away with it. Now, however, I found not using the tray makes me more disciplined in my brewing, and also, as a side benefit, conserves a bit of water. The large bowl serves as a kensui for the waste water. I might get a real kensui to sub in or this bowl, which I think should see more useful service as something else (fruit bowl?). Then again, I’m pressing the pewter bowl into service — that was originally a fruit bowl as well. In fact, other than the yixing pot, I think the only other things that are intended for tea in this setup are the chataku (the pewter cup holder) and the tray in the bottom.

Incidentally, tea works just as well (if not better) as Pledge in buffing up dark wood.

Update: Aaron just told me that this is probably from a 500g tuo from the 80s, one of those cooked puerh where the process of fermentation was incomplete or lightly done, so that they taste sort of raw-ish in the midst of the mostly cooked flavours. I think this came up when I was telling him about how I’ve seen people selling some 80s tuo that are obviously cooked as raw tea, and thus this tuo came into the picture….

Interesting drink, and thanks for the sample :)

Nor Sun Puerh

I saw this in a Chinese market yesterday. I actually opened the can to look, and thought it smelled traditionally stored. Couldn’t resist

The leaves look nondescript — traditionally stored, for sure (from the smell). Nannuo (that’s what Nan Nor is)? Who knows. But who can say no to something that can be used as a disinfectant for internal use?

When I brewed it, it’s obvious that there’s some cooked leaves in this mix

The taste is… interesting. It’s actually, for what it’s worth, not that bad at all. It’s cooked, sure, but it’s traditionally stored cooked, and traditionally stored cooked, IMHO, is better than non traditionally-stored cooked. The taste is richer, and it removes almost all traces of the nasty pondy smell/taste that you normally get in a cooked puerh. The tea is actually decent, which surprised me. I wonder how people who don’t know much about tea think about this?

As I examined the wet leaves, I realized that this is actually a blend of raw and cooked leaves.

The greenish leaves are such that they can’t possibly be cooked… I just don’t see it happening. My guess is these could be broken cakes, or at least some are broken cakes, that were thoroughly mixed in and blended together for export. The tea comes from a Hong Kong company with a Hong Kong address in the section where a lot of these old wholesalers are, so I am guessing this is just one of those traditional upstairs tea merchants who are packaging this. Pretty interesting, I must say, and quite a surprise to find ok puerh in Columbus OH in a tin can.

Music and tea

I opened this up today to drink, finally, after it’s been sitting around for months and traveled with me.

Action Jackson packed it in Shanghai. It’s a cooked tea that she wanted me to try. It’s surprisingly sturdy as a packaging — even though it’s been in a luggage multiple times, it still kept all the tea!

Seeing the wrapping made me think of this question again – do people listen to music when drinking tea? What kind, if any? I first thought about this question on the subway listening to Philip Glass.. and wondered if any tea would go well with such music. I am not sure, especially since I usually drink in silence by myself.

These days, a lot of shops in China are starting to have guqin in the background or even live. It really started while I was in Beijing — all of a sudden many shops acquired one. After the cultural suicide during the Cultural Revolution, now people have finally gotten enough time and money to start worrying about something other than feeding themselves. Guqin works very well with tea. I wonder if others find music works or not.

The tea today was a little off. I’m not sure if the multiple trips in a luggage did some damage to it. The aroma of the leaves (wet) smell better than the tea tasted — it was a bit bitter for a cooked, a little off, and after a few infusions, a little sour. It’s still an ok cooked, and I didn’t really mind drinking it, but it wasn’t the best out there, I’m afraid.

It looks just like most cooked teas

When it comes to cooked puerh, Menghai still works the best. While raw tea involves very little skill in making the cake, cooked tea has a lot of skills — and apparently, water is also an important factor. For example, Mengku factory had problem with their cooked tea (tasted sour) because the water they used wasn’t good enough, and so they had to pipe it in from a faraway spring.

Still, I don’t drink much cooked tea, and if I ever want one… I would rather drink a red (black) tea or a shuixian instead.

70s cooked puerh

Unlike Davelcorp’s sample yesterday, some of my samples are distinctly un-labeled, and I’m never really sure whose tea it is, when I neglected to label them and it’s been a year since I looked. Today’s tea was one such thing. It’s a 70′s cooked puerh, loose. It came in an envelope not unlike those used by Davelcorp, but bigger.

I seem to vaguely remember this is from shichangpu (formerly psychopuncture). I could be wrong though. If I am… please identify yourself. I’m really sorry :(

I don’t think I am expereinced enough to tell a 70s cooked from, say, a 90s cooked. I haven’t had enough authentic old cooked to tell for sure. All I know is that cooked teas do age a bit — mostly in removing the nasty fermentation smell/taste, and if slightly wet stored, can be more fragrant. I’ve definitely had some cooked puerh that are more sweet or plummy, and can be an interesting thing to drink. This is one of those that obviously have gotten rid of the nasty taste of cooked, and probably has gone through some wet storage. It’s mellow. It’s not terribly exciting (are cooked puerh ever?). It’s an interesting thing to drink, and it beats brand new cooked.

But is it really 70s? I really, honestly, have no way of telling for sure. This is probably especially true since this is loose. Can anybody really know?

The colour of the liquor is quite light, all things considered

So without judging it on the basis of age — let’s just say this is a reasonable cooked puerh… not offensive, not particularly exciting, but good enough – so long as it’s not too expensive.

Two cooked samples

I went to the tea market today, but didn’t accomplish what I wanted, and basically didn’t drink any tea.  So I got home, and decided to drink some cooked samples I got from Teacuppa thanks to their generous offer of tea that Hobbes at the Half-Dipper organized.

Since I only got two of the three samples… I am tasting only two and don’t know which particular tea I’m missing, but the three possible candidates are:

1) 2005 Menghai Factory “Tiandiren” (Shupu)
2) 2005 Luxi Tea Co. Organic 8821 (Shupu)
3) 2005 CNNP (Shupu)

Anyway, so my two samples are from these.

I tried the first one:

Smells mildly of cooked puerh.  Nothing too exciting.  When I rinsed it and smelled the lid… it smells, oddly enough, like a young raw puerh aged 3-4 years.  I think it’s because it’s been stored with a lot of that kind of tea?  When I tasted the first infusion… the overall impression was that it was fairly weak and bland.  Ok, maybe I didn’t brew it strong enough.  I let the second infusion go longer… still thin, a little stronger in taste, but doesn’t taste quite like a cooked puerh.  A bit sour…. not too exciting, and a little off-putting.  Third infusion… really, really sour now.  This is no good.  I gave up on the tea.  If a tea doesn’t show anything good to me in three infusions (and in fact, got worse because it was really quite sour) then it’s not a tea I really want to drink, and given how weak it is, I don’t think it was going to improve.

Overall impression: weak, thin, not really like a cooked, more like a screwed up raw puerh or just something very odd.  Didn’t like it at all…

The leaves don’t even look quite right

Something wasn’t quite right about this.  I was telling vl that I can make a better cooked puerh than this.

Utterly unsatisfied, I went on to the next sample.

Looks more like a normal cooked to me, actually.  The last one was a little black.

The tea tastes a little more like a normal cooked puerh.  It’s lost that nasty pondy smell, but just has the regular cooked pu taste.  A little too bitter for a cooked puerh, in my opinion, but it’s thick, at least.  An average cooked tea…

Since the colour of the actual tea is basically some variation of soy sauce… not a lot of reason to post the colour of the tea itself.

All in all… one tea that is really not good, and one that is so so.  I have a suspicion that the bad one is the CNNP, and the so so one… the Tiandiren, perhaps?

Zhengshan

More traditionally stored broken bits today

This one is, curiously, called Zhengshan by the teashop that sold it to me. It’s pretty cheap. It’s obviously traditionally stored, in Hong Kong, and broken up a while ago. I don’t really understand the name Zhengshan. Zhengshan, in the context of puerh, means that it is of a certain mountain proper. So, a Yiwu Zhengshan (anybody who’s shopped around should’ve seen this phrase at some point) means “Yiwu Mountain Proper”. It’s an advertising slogan, basically, for anybody selling tea that purports to be from one region. It’s an assurance that the tea is, indeed, coming from the proper mountain that is being named, and not some surrounding regions or mixed with stuff, etc

Just on its own, however, Zhengshan doesn’t really seem to make much sense. I didn’t ask the owner what he meant. Maybe there’s something obvious I’m not getting. I don’t know.

I don’t know where this tea came from. I think this is some standard factory issue from the 90s. It’s quite compressed. The tea brews a nice red liquor:

Mind you, this is a bit lighter than usual because I changed cups. I bought a new cup a few days ago at Maliandao

It’s one of those flat, big cups. The thing is almost two inches in diameter. It will make the tea look lighter in colour than it would with a more normal cup. For example, a few infusions later I took a shot of the fairness cup:

Much darker. Pouring out, however, the tea still looks red.

The tea is very smooth, with a silky texture and a slightly creamy taste. It’s got a hint of bitterness still, more obvious when drunk cool. Camphor is the most prominent aroma. It does hit the back of your mouth a bit, but it’s not a very good tea that hits you with a strong but subtle impact. Instead, it’s a mellow and relaxing drink, doesn’t really excite you, but delivers the goods as it should. After a few days of some pretty green puerh, it’s a nice change of pace. I can really only take so much young stuff before feeling the effects on my body. Drinking this sort of thing is easy on the body, and not too demanding in brewing technique. You can just focus on drinking.

I should’ve bought more of it when I was in Hong Kong. It’s very different from the Guangyungong bits. This tea is obviously younger. It’s got more strength and punch than the GYG, which is now very mellow and sweet. There is another sample of even younger stuff, but I find that to be a little too young to taste good now. It’s some Jiangcheng brick, about 10 years old. They all have the advantage of being very cheap though.

It’s still brewing. I just pulled out some leaves to take a shot of it. It’s very tight still — I had to stab this piece to break it into twos when I took it out. Whatever this Zhengshan is, it’s pretty decent.