Tea purgatory

Quite a few of you have the same problem – how to deal with teas that are really inferior, so that you don’t want to drink them every day.  However, you have too much of it, so you have to get rid of it, somehow, especially if you paid for the privilege.

These teas are often acquired with the best of intentions – you bought it thinking it might be good, and end up being a disappointment.  You bought it as an impulse (say, while you were traveling) and when you got home, it is no longer so good. Sometimes you got the tea because you used to like it, but your tastes changed. Or, you got it from some other means – a gift, an accidental find, etc. Either way, now you’re stuck with this tea that isn’t really quite that good.

I have a lot of these teas, as I’m sure a lot of you do too.  Giving them away, or selling them, seems wrong, because they’re not particularly attractive.  After all, you don’t really want to give bad tea to people, especially if they’re newcomers.  The only tea I happily give away is cooked puerh, since I almost never drink teas of that genre, and I know there are others out there who will appreciate it way more than I do.  The rest of the time, however, whether it is bad black tea, bad young puerh, or bad oolong, I’m stuck with it.

One way for me to get rid of such teas these days is to drink it at work, where I’m condemned to drink such things grandpa style, for lack of proper implements (or time) to do it right. I could probably bring a tea set to work, but since I just started less than a month ago, bringing such things, even in Asia, might be a little off.  So these days, I’m drinking some terrible, terrible work tea – a box of very run of the mill Assam, an old can of cooked puerh from Mengku that I had stashed away for no reason, and some 4 years old baozhong that I’ve been aging myself.  The baozhong is probably the most interesting of these teas, seeing as it was purchased fresh in 2007 and now approaching five years old in the same bag.  When I opened it it smelled distinctly like a slightly aged oolong – a little of that slightly plummy, sour fragrance, but when I brewed it, grandpa style anyway, it was still mostly like a duller green baozhong.  It clearly needs some more time.

I suppose this is a good thing, in the sense that I’m drinking some of these leftover teas that I’ll never otherwise touch and which will forever linger in tea purgatory until I fish them out for some reason. Now, they’re being consumed in a willy-nilly manner at work, purely for the caffeine effect and not much else.  I do need to find a more permanent solution to the work-tea problem though, because otherwise I’m going to be stuck with bad tea for a long time, and then my good teas will be in tea purgatory.

Finding winners

I think one part of any hobby that requires collecting is the fun in finding winners.  Some hobbies, like stamp collecting, have what I think of as high transparency.  Everyone already know what’s out there, and generally speaking, people have a fairly good idea of the rarities that may exist and how much they would go for.  Once in a while there’s a surprise, but those are few and far between, and generally require some luck to land on.  Then there are things like puerh drinking, which also has a collecting component to it.  Here, I think the transparency is both high and low — high for a small constellation of “famous” cakes which everyone knows about and is sought after, not always for the right reasons.  Then there’s the rest of the teas out there, largely unnoticed, flying under the radar.  Some can be very good, and in some cases even better than some of the more famous productions, but very often, they are duds and deserve to remain in the background.  The joy of finding a hidden gem, however, is great.

Hobbes at Half Dipper has just talked about two cakes that I recently got samples for from Yunnan Sourcing — the purple and red Yisheng from 2005.  These are sister cakes to the red Yisheng that I bought in Beijing back in 2007, and which Hobbes has diligently reviewed after he purchased some himself.  I remember trying the one I bought with the one that YSLLC currently offers, and decided on the one that I eventually bought because I thought it slightly better.  I don’t remember seeing the purple there, or if I did, it was more expensive and thus ruled out of consideration.

I’ve seen the cakes surface on Taobao since then, but never really found reason to try them again, especially since it involves buying a whole cake.  With YSLLC offering samples though, I decided to take the plunge.

Yesterday I had the red, since I know it better.  As soon as I opened the sample bag, I could smell the tea.

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Using my trusty young puerh pot, it brews dark

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The tea was, according to Scott, aged in Xishuangbanna, and it shows.  Kunming teas don’t age like this, and one of the reasons I decided to try the tea at all was because of this storage claim.  In my experience, teas stored in Xishuangbanna in general are quite good.  They mellow much faster without the dryness that Kunming has, which I find to be draining on a tea.  Drinking this red Yisheng, I am reminded of my own cakes — and wonder how they’re aging in Hong Kong.  Unfortunately, I have no basis for comparison, but this tea is very nice, showing signs of age as well as a solid Yiwu taste and mouthfeel, with good qi and longevity.  I like this.

The red is, according to Scott, a fall tea, while the purple was picked in the spring.  So it’s only natural that I try that today as a comparison.  Right away, you can tell that the leaves are smaller and more buds are present.

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The colour of the liquor is largely similar, with perhaps a hint darker than the red.

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The true test, of course, is in the way it goes down, and here the extra rainy season it endured is obvious — the tea tastes more aged.  It also has more punch, being a spring tea, and it lasts forever.  Three kettles of water later, it still yields a strong cup.  For the purposes of record keeping, I took the leaves out for some pictures

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With the purple on the left and red on the right.  Then, having taken said pictures, the purple leaves are now back in a mug for some grandpa style drinking.  Interestingly enough, drinking it this way yields a slightly smokey note that was not present in the normal brewing.

Both of these teas are what I would consider great young puerh that are starting to show some age, while having enough “stuff” to go on aging without worries about deterioration, which is more than I can say about many other cakes of this vintage.  The purple is punchier, while the red is mellower, which some might like.  I remember the great feeling of having found a “winner” in the spring of 07 when I bought the Yisheng in Beijing, back when Douji was a relatively obscure brand and nobody has heard of Yisheng before.  Drinking these now, I have the same feeling, and wonder why I didn’t try the purple one first.  I wish I have my own cake here to compare, but it’s probably better that they are in Hong Kong, safely tucked away from my evil clutches.  Taobao’s offering are similarly priced, and if you factor in proxy costs and other sundry charges, YSLLC is as good as any.  Of course, your mileage may vary, but I think this tea deserves at least a hearing.

Grandpa style techniques

Life has been pretty busy the past few weeks, and I’m getting ready for a trip, so things have been hectic.  Tea has been mostly confined to grandpa style tea.  Having been doing it recently though, I have a few ideas.

1) Never, ever go below the halfway point in the cup when drinking, and preferably keep it at 2/3 full at all times.  You need that amount of tea to re-add water and not end up with a really diluted cup.  This is pretty obvious.

2) Use a lidded cup, if possible.  Don’t cover when making the tea initially.  However, start covering the cup once you’re refilling the cup the 2nd or 3rd time.  This way, the extra heat retained helps extra the tea a little more.

3) When pouring the water, especially a little later (or when the tea has cooled) pour with vigor, and pour along the edge of the cup.  That way, your water will stir up the tea a little and it helps mix the old tea and new water together a little.  I noticed a difference between pouring in the middle and pouring on the side.  Pouring on the side helps the flavour a little later on.

4) It’s actually a good way to drink tea this way as a method of evaluation.  In a way, grandpa style is just a big mug of competition tasting done over a long time.  There are nuances that you’ll get from the tea that you don’t necessarily get from brewing normally.  One of my puerh, for example, displays a smokiness that is not evident when brewed “normally” but the smoke comes out in a grandpa brewing.

5) Don’t add too much leaves.  It’s very easy, when used to gongfu brewing, to use too much leaves for grandpa style.  It’s very toxic.

Mandarin’s Tearoom 2010 Mingqian Shifeng longjing

Longjing is my first love.  I’ve talked about longjing a long time ago.  It was the tea that got me into tea drinking.  It’s the tea that my grandpa likes to drink a lot (yes, in grandpa style), and it’s also the drink of choice for folks from my area of the country.  All this oolong stuff is just silly, and puerh is obviously crap.  Longjing (and maybe biluochun) are the gold standards of what constitutes a proper tea.

I used to be pretty serious when brewing longjing — gaiwan with a fairness cup to cool the water, a soft pour, quick(ish) steeps.  The resulting brew comes out very, very light in colour.  The best longjing, as my old post already mentions, are usually very faint in colour — almost white, rather than green, is the norm.  If your leaves are dark green and the tea comes out yellow, it’s probably harvested later or low grade stuff.  If someone sells you a mingqian (pre-Ming) longjing for $400 a pound and it’s the colour of pine needles, it’s no good.

Another physical trait of decent longjing is that they tend to be hairy, and the buds should ideally be very thick and round.  They should look “fat”.  If the leaves look “skinny” to you, it’s probably not a very good grade, although of course individuals differ, and the ultimate test is still in the taste.  Using appearances to judge tea is a very flawed way to do so, but for something like longjing it is actually possible to get some idea of what the tea is like before even trying it.

I don’t drink much longjing these days, mostly because they tend to be expensive, and I don’t drink much of them to warrant a purchase.  Every year I might drink it a handful of times, and the rest, unfortunately, turn to yellow tea, old, somewhat weird tasting, but still drinkable.  They are hardly worth the cost, however.  Not being near the source also doesn’t help — longjing is something you need to purchase in person, rather than from some online vendor.  Being in the US hasn’t helped my longjing habit.

I did receive a sample recently from Toki, however, so I broke it out and gave it a spin.  It was a generous sample, so I didn’t use all of it.  First off, the leaves

The colours here are a little off — my house has poor lightning for pictures, which is why these days I don’t take as many pictures.  You can see the white tuffs of hair on the right hand side on one of the leaves, and scattered around.  Different longjing from different vendors always look different.

These days when I make longjing, I generally use a gaiwan and make it the old fashioned way — in the gaiwan as a sipping cup.  If that’s how people used to make it for hundreds of years, then I see no reason why we should go all fancy on it.  It is, in other words, grandpa style with gaiwan.

How much leaves to put into these things is key — too much and you risk stuffing the cup and making it incredibly nasty.  Too little, and it’s going to be bland.  For this sort of brewing, if it covers the bottom of the cup it’s probably about right.

Now, how’s the tea?  Fragrant, with a nice minty feel down the throat.  I find it to be beany, which is normal for this kind of longjing.  It’s not too astringent even when brewed for a while — which is a good thing.  I’ll probably make it once the gongfu way, but drunk this way the tea is quite nice.

Better brewed in paper

These days I’m on the road a lot, and that means that I have to be expedient — can’t brew properly when I’m in a car driving, after all.  Paper cup + leaves is often the way to go, with refills on the way for hot water and hopefully, the water isn’t tainted by coffee, as it very often is.

What I’ve found sometimes though is that some teas are actually better brewed in a cup, grandpa style (it seems like this term is now in much wider circulation than I thought possible), than actually trying to make it in a smaller pot, etc.  Young puerh, especially, seems good for this treatment.  Whereas the tea may be very bitter and somewhat acidic when brewed intensely in a small pot, in a larger cup with a higher water to tea ratio, it actually can come out pleasant, with a nice but not overwhelming sense of bitterness, and the young tea’s acidity is not overpowering to the point where you wonder if you’re drinking drain cleaners.

Of course, there are tricks to the trade too.  You can’t drink it all before you refill — that’s disaster, because the next cup will be insipid, boring, and tasteless.  You are often better off drinking water at that point.  Also, you need a tea that can stand up to the sometimes coffee tainted water, so that if there’s that extra hint of java in there, you won’t notice it all too much.  A wonderful green can be destroyed if you add those kind of water in your cup.  I recommend a youngish (but changing) puerh or a roasty oolong.

The source of water is also important.  Some kinds of establishments are better than others vis-a-vis their water.  If you try to get water from a gas station, you’re pretty much doomed.  Starbucks is actually not a bad place, and they always give it to you for free.  Some places are stingy, like Dunkin Donuts, and want money from you for the water, which often tastes like coffee anyway.  I find it wasteful sometimes, but I will usually ask for a cup of hot water, rather than handing them my tea-filled cup — they are less resistant to giving you water that way, and at any rate, my “leaves floating in brown water” cup often leaves people wondering if I’m trying to do a science experiment.  Just like how kids no longer understand how meat comes from livestock, to a lot of people tea is that brown stuff you find in teabags, not whole leaves.

Time to go driving again, and today I’m drinking some of this.

Flying

Flying is such a chore.  Flying is also where you’re guaranteed bad tea, most likely.  Whereas these days branded coffee is making its way into the planes, and at major airports it seems like getting a good cup of java is never a real problem, finding good tea in an airport or a plane is considerably harder.

United, for example, offers Chinese restaurant tea as their “Chinese tea” on their service to Greater China.  What that means is that it’s tea powder…. with that strange taste one only finds in those kind of tea.  I honestly have no idea what type of tea is used to make that powder stuff… and how to explain those bubbles that never pop.  Anybody who’s been to a Chinese restaurant in the US will know what I’m talking about.  If you don’t…. good, because it’s nasty.

I’ve generally resorted to making tea on my own on the plane.  Using their sub-boiling water though, one shouldn’t use a leaf that requires too much heat or too much finness.  I find that young puerh, especially of the maocha variety, works particularly well on a plane.  A few leaves, and you’ve got yourself a cup of very pleasant, sweet, and gentle tea.  Since the water is not really hot enough, it’s almost impossible to overbrew the tea and so it will never really get bitter.  Indian teas also work, for obvious reasons.  I’ve tried brewing tieguanyin on a plane, with not-so-good results.  The leaves didn’t really unfurl, and throughout the cup tasted weak and watery.  Not a good idea.  I haven’t tried brewing Wuyi using plane water yet.  I should probably experiment.

Today I flew Cathay Pacific back to Hong Kong, where I’ll be for a few days to pick up my stuff and to settle my tea from Beijing into a more permanent home.  On the plane they served up a slightly weak, but still pretty reasonable (all things considered) cup of slightly roasted Southern Fujian oolong or something like that.  It’s a little too weak to tell for sure what it is, but it’s pleasant enough.  Flying into Hong Kong is, of course, quite nice.  Aside from being home, it’s also the most efficient airport I’ve been to.  Gate-to-door time was one hour and five minutes, including immigration control, baggage claim, custom, ground transportation … there’s no place like home 🙂

T Ching samples revisited

I brewed the T Ching samples I drank a few days ago again. The oolong I brewed on the plane. The white tea I brewed here at home. Both were made in the “grandpa” style.

The oolong tastes, again, remarkably similar to a Yunnan black tea. Undertones of darjeeling-esque taste still there, but really, I can get something very similar by drinking a Yunnan tea, and perhaps a little less bitter when overbrewed (as this was, by accident). When brewed in a cup like this the initial sweetness is less obvious. On the other hand, the aftertaste is more present.

The white tea tastes more like a white this time with a little more oxidation note, which is a good thing for me. The tea is still a bit rough on the tongue though, for reasons unknown (I find buds to be generally less rough) since I used cooler water this time. There’s also a bit of bitterness that’s just slightly too much, and this one I didn’t overbrew. I wonder if this is a varietal issue — and what can be done to reduce the level of bitterness in these tea. Higher oxidation? But then you quickly leave the white tea territory that way.

I think these are probably good examples of these teas as they are made in the Indian subcontinent. However, I’m not sure if given a choice I’ll prefer either of these over selections from China. The price of the white tea is also a factor in this case, as it’s on the pricey side of things. The oolong is more reasonable, and its high oxidation is interesting — curiously, more interesting in a gongfu setting. I can’t complain about that 🙂

Maocha in a cup

I spent most of the day on a train from Beijing to Shanghai.  On the way, I drank a maocha I bought way back when I first got to Beijing.  I think I must’ve bought it on my second or third trip to Maliandao.  I remember getting 100g of it, wondering whether it will age well, or if it’s good at all.  I knew very little about maocha at that point, having not tried any before.  It was all an experiment.

Almost a year later, I am brewing it, grandpa style, in a paper cup with train water. Unfortunately, I packed the cable for camera-to-computer in my luggage that I left in Beijing, so no pictures… but the tea is surprisingly sweet that way.  Of course, I didn’t use much leaves.  Using too much leaves will mean it will get nasty, bitter, and astringent.  The key to making young puerh palatable, at least in these long, uncontrolled infusions, is to use little leaves and not quite boiling water.  Then, almost everything tastes good.

The leaves are very thick, and the taste reasonable.  It’s not too strong, although there’s some throatiness to the tea.  I think it’s fall tea, or possibly summer tea.  It’s definitely not spring picked.  I need to evaluate it more properly in a gaiwan under normal conditions to be able to say anything definitive about it, but as a drink to pass the time on a train ride, it does its job admirably well.  At the very least, I don’t think this is green tea puerh and should age.