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.