Taobao price controls

I was just randomly browsing through Taobao the other day, looking to maybe buy a couple cakes of those mid-2000s Dayi that I finished up during the pandemic. Except, they’re all gone, and the seller that I bought them from no longer sells any Dayi of any kind. This was unusual, since he used to have quite a few of them and it’s unlikely he’s sold out of all. Now his store only sells stuff like Nanqiao… and nobody wants to buy mid-2000s Nanqiao when Dayi is only a little more expensive.

So I DMed the guy and asked what was happening. Turns out, recently something was going on and Dayi basically managed to get Taobao to kick off all these small time tea sellers selling Dayi. Now when you search for Dayi, the only people who sell them on Taobao are the official stores, and at prices that are way higher than what was possible only a few months ago. If you look for, say, 7542 from 10+ years ago, you get less than 20 hits. Previously, you’ll get literally endless pages of the stuff. Granted, there was a fair amount of fakes in there, and you have to be careful, but there were also lots of sellers selling real tea among them. Now they’re all gone. I can still get the tea from the guy I DMed if I want, but that’s not really something you can do if you don’t know Chinese or if you don’t already know who has the good stuff.

This means that if you are bargain hunting on Taobao, that door has just closed. It’s possible to find older teas from small producers that could be good, but those are a real lottery ticket and it’s very risky to do so. If you just want some cheap Dayi, chances are finding a vendor who is located in Guangdong and has physical access to a place like Fangcun is now the better bet.

This is a troubling development. It’s probably done in the name of protecting the brand and to kick out counterfeit goods, but also ends up stopping people from undercutting officially set prices. So, just know that if you now go on Taobao to check prices… what you see is not what really happens in the market place. A lot of these teas from the big brands are being traded at a level lower than what you see on retail there. You can go to www.donghetea.com or something like that to check wholesale prices, but that still doesn’t give you access to the retail market unless you already know someone who’s there.

The Authentic Taste of Puer Tea and Transnational Interests

The title of this post is the title of the paper that I’m linking to. Written by Yu Shuenn-Der, the deputy director of the Institute of Ethnology at Academia Sinica in Taiwan, the paper is basically a very good critical summary of the recent history of the puerh fad. If you’ve read this blog with any regularity in the past, it should be of great interest to you.

You can find the rest of the issue for the journal here, which includes two other papers on contemporary tea culture.

Life and death of a tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My tea got wet

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

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

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

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

Is Dayi or Xiaguan worth it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fake Dayi

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

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

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

However, one thing was obvious:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).

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.

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

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.