November 28, 2009

A Few Flashes From the Archives of Oblivion

This tea volcano has lain dormant a bit too long; regrettably, I've slipped back into another patch of busy times, and squawking about tea is one of the first things I have to excise in order to make more time for the more profane activities in my life. Luckily, drinking tea is one of the last things I'm ready to forgo (right up there with eating, sleeping, and listening to Roy Harper). At least, this time some of my schedule is taken up by interesting adventures--recording music and learning some Mandarin, which may or may not be in preparation for an eventual return to graduate school for the purposes of studying Chinese religion. Either way, I'm excited about applying what I learn to my tea drinking and potential travel to Asia. Since I don't have a lot of time to blog lately, this post will be a bit of a recap and a preview.

No-New-Tea November

I'll get the shock and awe out of the way early: I haven't bought any tea for the entire month of November. That's right, I'm not even joking. I don't know about you, but part of my monthly ritual is snagging at least a few new teas to make things interesting and keep up with the seasons. For me to not spend any money on tea for an entire month is a decision that could be accurately described as deranged, but I'm actually coping fairly well. What the hell was I thinking?

From a practical standpoint, I saved some good money this month--it's been nice to get ahead on my finances, take a break from some leisure expenses and add a bit more to savings. It was also a goal I decided I'd like to see myself accomplish just to test my dependence on tea. Finally, to be honest, I had one too many days where no tea sounded particularly enticing and none of the pots I drank produced exciting results. If I'm not feeling enthusiastic about some of the better teas I own, why should I be apathetically sucking down my supply and buying teas that didn't sound that great? After all, it's not exactly been the season for the best fresh teas. Instead, I've dug out a few saved bags from my storage cooler (it's weird, don't ask) and made a conscious effort to blow through the mass of pu-erh samples I've accumulated over time. The teas I've been drinking never became favorites--Jing Tea Shop's 2008 Bai Ji Guan, that weird Winter "Huang Jing" Dancong and the 90's Jing Zhu Dancong from Hou De, and a few Taiwanese oolongs I had lying around from this spring. I figure, if I'm not enthusiastic about the tea I'm drinking, I may as well drink teas I wasn't enthusiastic about in the first place. The results have actually been pretty fun. Trying my saved teas added a little more variety into the rotation and reminded me what I liked and didn't like about the teas. Some of the sessions were actually quite enjoyable, even if they didn't make me crave the tea every day. I took the opportunity to casually brew the teas with a low leaf-to-water ratio, sipping a few longer-steeped cups, which I've come to appreciate as an acceptable and even ideal way to drink less amazing teas--there's no escalated expectations or time commitment that come with gong fu, some teas actually taste better this way, and it's possible to not pay too much attention and just sit and enjoy a cup of hot tea, which is probably how we all got into this in the first place. I think I may have forgotten just a little bit about the pleasure of absentmindedly drinking a cup of tea and not scrutinizing it under the microscope. Finally, restraining myself from purchasing tea gave me pause to consider my buying habits. One thing I've gradually learned in the past five years (probably more so in the last year) or so of heavy tea drinking is patience. In the past month of observing the online vendors, there were very few teas that piqued my interest. A while ago, I probably would have still bought several teas that didn't sound completely great for the purpose of having something new to drink. These teas usually end up being the ones that clutter my shelves because I never went crazy over them. After experiencing a few years' worth of harvests, if a certain tea genre's harvest doesn't wow me, it's a little easier to not freak out and just hold on until something better comes along. Similarly, if a nice but maybe not ideal yixing pot appears, it's become a bit easier to hold off--something perfect will eventually come along.

Of course, I've still been drinking teas that excite me more, but in less proportion. Naturally, there are a few teas I'm itching to order at the beginning of December--now the trouble is managing my expectations. All in all, the month has been a success, and I've been feeding my ears with plenty of unusual music--AMM, Fred Frith's recent acoustic guitar solos album, the Stooges (somehow I've neglected them so far), and a solid Buck Owens release (just don't ask me to quit buying tea AND music for a whole month) so I've come out alive. These days I've been starting my day with something strong like Wuyi oolong or a long-brewed sheng pu-erh, then drinking somewhat lighter teas in the late morning and relaxing with some aged pu-erh in the afternoon every couple of days or so.

In Defense of Aged Pu-erh (As If It Really Needs Defending)

Which leads me to the next subject--pu-erh. I think Maitre Tea brought up the general subject a while back and I got to thinking about a few points. Firstly, MAN, there's a lot of pressure in the online tea world to drink and care about pu-erh! Reading some of these blogs, you'd think it's the only tea out there, or at least the only tea that matters. I feel for any Chinese tea lover out there who just doesn't care for it, because you're often shit-out-of-luck if you don't want to talk about pu-erh. Much as I enjoy pu-erh, I still wouldn't trade in my Wuyi oolongs, good roasted Taiwanese oolong, nice Dan Cong or fresh Chinese greens, even if it meant I got the best pu-erhs in return. It'd be boring. I guess what I'm thinking is that pu-erh often dominates the tea blogs, while in reality people are actually drinking a wider variety of teas--I wouldn't mind reading about once in a while. I suppose you can't control what you're pumped about, though, so I can't begrudge you for writing about your most powerful current obsessions.

On a similar tack, I want to say a couple words in defense of aged pu-erh. One of the most enjoyable periods in my tea life was when I started learning about sheng pu-erh and tried about 30 different samples, keeping track and deciding what I liked and disliked. I really learned a lot and came to understand at least the basics about what young sheng tastes like. Since then, my habits have changed and I rarely drink young sheng for pleasure. I've read quite a few posts or comments recently to the effect of "Aged sheng is just fancy and expensive for no reason. It's not worth the money, so I'll drink and collect young sheng instead." As someone who drinks mid-aged pu-erh on a regular basis, I can't help but get riled by this. Though it's tempting to respond with a brief "Sour grapes" reply, I don't think that would substantively address a few more of the things going on here. First off, you and I wouldn't even know about pu-erh at all if it weren't for the aged teas. It took the last 20 years for their popularity to build in Taiwan and Southeast Asia to the point where the tea was even known over here. To write off aged pu-erh when (for all intents and purposes) it is created by its producers for the purposes of aging seems to be a pretty bad case of looking a gift horse in the mouth.

For me, aged sheng just provides a more enjoyable drinking experience. No bitterness, no acrid smokiness, no cottonmouth astringency, and such delightful body and brewing durability. A leisurely pot of pu-erh on an afternoon after a long day of work is perfect--the qi is calming just as much as the caffeine is gently stimulating, and the whole experience is more relaxation-oriented. Although I do appreciate exploring the flavors and potential in the leaves, young sheng just doesn't provide as elegant or enjoyable an experience for me; the caffeine usually makes me jittery, sometimes my throat feels unpleasantly rough, and there's a lot more effort involved in getting the brew right so you don't produce an undrinkable cup.

Sure, aged pu-erh is more expensive, but not all of it is prohibitively expensive. Compare the price-per-gram of your favorite high-end Yan Cha, Dan Cong, High Mt. Taiwanese oolong, or Tieguanyin to that of a $200 357g bing of aged pu-erh, for example, and you'll find they're not too far off (many times the oolongs are more expensive!)--you just have to buy more when you buy a whole bing. Of course, it doesn't help that a lot of pu-erh is dirt cheap when it's brand new (a $14 bing is about $.04/gram), but for me the effort and expense put into properly aging a tea is worth the change in the tea's characteristics and the experience I get from drinking it.

Additionally, I'm not so sure the "I'll just buy young pu-erh and age it myself" argument is airtight. I've tried at least five Asian-stored pu-erhs from the 80's that tasted like they needed further aging to get rid of their astringency and smoke. If those teas spent almost 30 years in ideal storage conditions without fully maturing, can you be sure your inexperienced, experimental US storage is going to do the trick? I'm not that confident! Are you willing to wait 30 years before you enjoy some aged pu-erh? Even if you're in your 20's, 30 years is a long time to wait just for the satisfaction of saving some money. How many more years can you keep buying fresh pu-erh and expect to drink it when it's aged? I'd rather spend some extra money on some aged tea that I know tastes good now (rather than buy more cheap young sheng) so I can drink it while I wait and see how a modest amount of young sheng matures--if it even does at all.

I don't mean to harsh your mellow if you're a fan (even an exclusive fan) of young sheng pu-erh--I think it's pretty awesome that some Westerners have developed a taste for a tea that is traditionally consumed after aging--more power to you if you enjoy the green stuff! I'm not here to say that you should only drink aged pu-erh and you're a fool if you think you enjoy young pu-erh. I just happen to have discovered through experience that I enjoy young sheng just occasionally and get a lot more out of drinking the more aged stuff, despite its "outrageous" price tag. I just want to urge you not to write off aged pu-erh simply because it's more expensive--especially if you haven't taken the time to understand what it's like. It's pretty easy to get a large sampling of inexpensive young sheng, but it's a bit more difficult to do the same with aged pu-erh. Luckily, Hou De, Nada Cha and occasionally Jing Tea Shop offer some affordable samples (Hou De has some good ones somewhat recently posted in their "Tea Sampler" section). Try some aged pu-erh before you declare that it's for the birds; you might change your mind. If you try pu-erhs between 10 and 30 years old, you might also enjoy learning a bit about what happens to pu-erh as it ages. At the very least, your opinion will have experience to back it up and you'll be able to better articulate why it is you think aged pu-erh isn't worth it. Lastly, if you're thinking (even in the back of your mind) that you're buying your tea for the purposes of aging and your ultimate goal is to drink aged pu-erh, I urge you to be realistic--if all you're buying is tongs of fresh pu-erh, you might be in for a long wait; you might be better off dividing your spending between young pu-erh and something you can drink while you wait. Of course, there ARE plenty of people out there who enjoy both aged and unaged sheng pu-erh...Anyway, sorry I got mad. Let's never fight again.

I'm now realizing that I should have divided this into multiple posts, this is getting ridiculous. I probably won't have a whole lot of blog time coming up though, so I'll try and keep it brief in the home stretch.

The Dregs (No, Not the Fannings)

I recently started going to an artesian well in Lynnwood, WA for tea-making water. It's not much of a secret--easy to find and there's plenty of information online about it, so if you live in the Seattle area and are interested in the closest thing to spring water for your tea, I'd recommend it. I mainly started doing this to see if my tetsubin would start re-building its mineral patina. So far, it seems like it's working. I've been snapping a photo after every 5-gallon water container I go through, and things are starting to get a lot whiter inside the tetsubin. I'll post a photo progression eventually when the difference is really appreciable. It's been a fun process to monitor the thing change.

Last, I finally acquired a reasonably-priced cha chuan, or tea boat. Not a wooden tea tray, or a simple bowl or plate, or a bowl with a cover with holes, but a bowl with a teapot stand. For me, it's a preferred accessory for gong fu; it's not bulky, can be emptied easily, and the pot doesn't have to be dripping with water every time you pick it up. Other than a few shitty (leaky) "yixing zisha" options and a couple overly-expensive examples, my months-long internet scouring came up empty. Luckily, I've got a potter friend and she was able to make a really nice artisan tea boat for me that didn't break the bank, and it works great. I'm working on convincing her to make more and offer them for sale online--I figure there have got to be a few more people like me out there who could get a lot of use out of one. I'll post some pictures of what she made for me and hopefully sometime soon I can convince her to make some more!

Well, I'll retreat into my clearly insane tea cave--I've got a few upcoming adventures that may be blogworthy, time permitting, like a recap of 50g of 1970's Guang Yun Gong pu-erh I purchased a few months back, and a yet-to-be-named exciting international purchase that may just make a bigger fool out of me. I hope your tea is tasting good.


Maitre_Tea said...

hey, you've updated! And such a prolific article I've helped a good way I hope. When I started reading the tea blogs and writing myself it seemed like every other blog out there was pu-erh exclusive, or close to it. I was a bit intimidated by it all, but now I think that it's really not that hard.

But I think the reason why pu-erh is such a constant source of attention is that it's 1. a valuable commodity and possible tool of investment (I don't agree with this), 2. It runs in the same vein as cigars and wine collecting, and 3. There's more "continuity" within Pu-erh.

For instance, your favorite DHP can vary from vendor to vendor, and even from batch to batch. But for the most part pu-erh are factory productions, so the online community can talk about the same thing with some level of consistency, and compare to past vintages, which is something that's a bit harder to do with other teas. Also, I feel like there's a lot more chances to screw up in buying pu-erh than most other teas.

And about the start of your pu-erh's pretty much how I'm starting out now. And quite sadly not many of these young sheng are really grabbing my attention. For now I might buy a few cakes for kicks and giggles, but probably never with the intention of aging myself. I pretty much live in a desert, and my pu-erh probably will never age with a humidifier (which I can't use for reasons I've mention in my blog).

I don't think I've really reached the point where I can enjoy an aged pu-erh to its fullest extent. That's not to say that the aged stuff is bad...because it can be really, really, really good. Right now I'm used to a taste/aroma kind of mindset, and since most aged stuff is about the "qi," I'm often frustrated. But perhaps I haven't had enough experience.

My strategy right now is to not buy much, and wait for a few years when aged current cakes are available (which will also be cheaper since production is so high these days). Also, at that point it'd be easier to see what cakes are worth aging at all. I have a huge order of various '01-'02 Xiaguan tuocha coming in from Tao Bao, and I'm going to order any "winners" in bulk. I'm also planning to sample, sample, and sample from Hou De...but with so many cakes sold out or being super-expensive, I'm afraid I'll like the sample...and not be in a position to buy a cake! Also I'm kind of broke, so buying aged cakes is very prohibitive for me.

Something that you kind of hinted at but not really is the advice you find these days about pu-erh. Even though many titans of the tea blogosphere are proven veterans of pu-erh: MarshalN, Hobbes, Bill, etc., but many times you have people who have had only a few years of experience giving advice. Now, we're all beginners, and giving advice is fine and dandy, but when you have beginners (me included) walking around and talking like an expert, and being super stubborn about sticking to your that's stupid. I think unless you've had at least 5 years of experience you should be relatively open-minded to different view points.

Wow, I've really clogged up your blog with my comment, but I suppose it's only fair after your long comment on my blog :)

PS: I too wouldn't give up my oolongs even for the finest pu-erh.

Bret said...

Wow, just wow! Man when you get on a roll theres no stopping you is there? I know how you feel, well, we all do I think. Going through your "hum drum" phase. From time to time Ive found myself thinking that blogging about tea is actually ruining my ability to appreciate it. It,s far more enjoyable to just relax and enjoy your tea "absentmindly" than to sit there drinking and pondering over each sip. I think that only in the absentminded mode do I really taste the tea. Ive considered ending my blog just because there is really only so much you can say about any tea be it puerh, oolong or whatever. How many times can you read about that "woodsy, tobacco or whatever flavor and still find it interesting? I can see the end of my blog coming. Not sure when but sometime in the next year. I,ll never stop enjoying tea, Ive been enjoying it for over forty years, too late to pull the plug on that, it,s an important part of everyday life for me.

Zero the Hero said...

Hi Maitre Tea,

Your comments are never clogging anything, so far as I'm concerned. It's always nice to have a few returning readers and turn the monologue into a discussion. All good points you bring up about pu-erh's popularity. I think for those reasons and others, people not only feel pressured to blog about pu-erh, they feel pressured to like it, when maybe they wouldn't without hearing such a positive tea blog consensus!

Don't worry too much about being able "to appreciate" aged pu-erh. If you've got 3/5 senses intact, you can appreciate any tea--just because it's more expensive doesn't mean it's more difficult to enjoy (especially if it's shitty tea). It's just a matter of acquiring (or not acquiring) the taste, like any other tea. It took me a while to really get excited about aged pu-erh and understand what particulars about the tea I enjoy so much. As far as qi goes, I am extremely skeptical of the concept in any sort of normative, quantifiable sense--it's all so subjective and psychological. When I use 'qi' I intend it to mean any way a tea makes me feel above and beyond your standard caffeine buzz. For me, aged pu-erh more often produces a calming and fuzzy feeling that I just don't get from other teas. Maybe I should use a different word. I'm no qi adept, and I like the way pu-erh tastes, smells, and feels in my mouth as well, otherwise I probably wouldn't drink it!

After drinking tea for a while, most of the advice I find myself giving comes from mistakes I regret making. I've wasted some money and time and if I can help somebody avoid doing the same, I'll pipe up. It seems like many of the worst advice offenders are vendors--"this pu-erh is great for aging" etc. etc., when all they know is that some pu-erh can be good when it's aged. "Look out kid, you're gonna get hit by users, cheaters, six-time losers hanging round the theaters, girl by the whirlpool's looking for a new fool--don't follow leaders; watch the parking meters!"

Zero the Hero said...

Always nice to hear from you, Bret.

The day you quit blogging will be a sad day for me--yours is one of my favorites. The tea blog world can be sometimes maddeningly genteel and mincing for my tastes (hence my occasional profanity), so your unpretentious "just a guy who loves tea" approach has always been a breath of fresh air for me. Plus, making "blog friends" is at least half the fun--it's always fun to hear what people are drinking and learn a bit about people's lives (Tyson etc...). I think a lot of us tea fiends don't have real-life tea enthusiast friends and you've got to have somebody to share your passions with, otherwise you just turn into one of those muttering crazy people.

Even if you quit reviewing teas all the time, you should keep your blog active in case you have an interesting thought or opinion about tea--that way you've got an outlet to express it, and lots of people who will appreciate it, even if you don't update for months at a time.

Bret said...

Oh stop now your making me blush. By the way, more by luck than judgement Ive been one of those crazy, muttering loons for some time now. To my advantage really, keeps all the boring people at a safe distance.

Maitre_Tea said...

between the three of us, I think I might have an article to write about the role of tea blogging! Looks like your writing is getting me thinking too!