January 26, 2010

Good--New Acquisitions.

It had been about 4 months (not very long, but it seems like a long time) since I'd purchased any teaware. Sometimes impulses take over, though, and something has to be done.

These two pots came from Jing Tea Shop, one of my standby vendors. I love this seller because they've always had solid quality, but since I've started purchasing from them they've continued to get better--their Dancongs were really great this spring, they always have a good yen cha selection (now with lots more info for each tea), they often offer aged pu-erh, and they just recently added a "Xiao Pin" section to their yixing shop. Alright! Having spent some time dabbling in the expensive and baffling world of vintage and antique yixing, I actually now feel more confident purchasing recently-made yixing ware. The primary selling point for antique yixing is often clay quality. The most obvious example is zhuni, which is probably best bought as antique, in my opinion. With other clays, though, I've found that I can't detect as much difference between recent and old examples to make it worth the 3x or more price increase. What I've found is that volume capacity, lid fit, pour, and general performance are more important to me than age or a modicum of clay quality improvement. Even if a pot is Qing dynasty and gorgeous zhuni, if it's 200 ml and has a leaky lid, it'll drive me crazy and end up sitting on the shelf.

The first pot is an 80ml 1980's pin zi ni shui ping. What strikes me about this pot is the crispness of the edges. In hand it feels so sharp and precise. It operates flawlessly; quick pour, dripping only when vertical, and the lid hole doesn't get filled with water too easily. I also really like that the lid is completely flat; it'll be interesting to watch how it seasons differently from the other pots I have. Both pots have interesting chops--this one has a bunch of extra characters in addition to the central stamp, a style I haven't really seen before.

The second is a 2006 Ben Shan lu ni shui ping. It's actually the first really traditional-style shui ping I've owned, which is fun. The clay on this one is really cool--a deep forest green which, because of the "yao bian" intentional over-firing, has taken on a bit of a red tint on the outside and a much redder color on the inside. The color looks different depending on the type of light that's hitting the pot (you can see the difference even in the three pictures here); it looks really cool in sunlight, but unfortunately the clouds rolled in by the time these pictures were taken. This one is not quite as ideal operationally; though the lid fits very well, there's a bit of a drip when pouring. I don't mind screens in a yixing spout (especially for fragmented teas like pu-erh and yen cha), but I'm not entirely sold on the efficacy of a bubble/golf ball style; I think it might slow down the pour a bit and could contribute to leakage. If the biggest problem with a pot is a little stream running down the outside of the spout, I don't really mind too much, since I often just stick the pot into the fair cup to empty it. Another interesting chop--this one is dated. Since this one is dated 2006, it's pretty believable (who would forge a date on a 4 year-old pot?), but I wonder just how reliable this type of thing will be in 20 years...it seems like the forge-ability of the original artist's chop is still the issue.

Aside from the re-awakening of my pure collector's spirit, I've been looking for a back-up yen cha pot (aside: The pot that titles this blog, despite now being beautifully seasoned, has had a couple of injuries and now has a hairline crack in the lid. I'm heartbroken at the prospect that someday soon it might be unusable, but it's made me a lot of good tea) and a smaller pot for sheng pu-erh, so I've had fun over the past 2 days testing out teas in these pots. I don't usually detect a huge difference between clays, but these two pots have surprised me. Both produce a rounder mouthfeel than more dense clays, and the lu ni seems to soften and round the most. The high notes in the flavor are better-preserved by the pin zi ni, and the walls retain heat a bit better. I think either could make good yen cha or pu-erh, but the pin zi ni pot's faster pour will be more conducive to making yen cha. I'm going to spend some time seasoning the lu ni pot to see how its effects on flavor turn out, but I think it might have a future as a good aged sheng pot. Either way, I'm excited to have some well-working tender clay yixing pots back in my collection; up until now my most porous pots have been hong ni, which is only porous compared to zhu ni!

January 22, 2010

Western Culture

I'll start at the middle: for the sole purpose of wordplay, I'd been planning title this entry after Henry Cow's final studio effort, Western Culture. The first of their studio records to not feature their characteristic sock cover art, the album's composition credits are split solely between organist/saxophonist Tim Hodgkinson and bassoonist Lindsay Cooper. Side A is populated with Hodgkinson's angular, mathematically dissonant works--the structure is imminently logical, but your average pair of ears will find little to recognize harmonically, melodically, or even structurally. Hodgkinson writes like he understands music on a completely intellectual level--intervals and combinations of notes on paper, every choice a deliberate logical decision. Cooper's side B, no less complex, exudes a totally different different energy. Whereas Hodgkinson understands composition, Cooper clearly feels composition in a way that no amount of learning or study can approach. Every choice in her pieces exudes class; dissonance and atonality make their appearances, but it's always organic--the ideas evolve naturally, there's an indescribable flair to the music, and we even get an occasional glimpse of--ahem--fun. Lindsay Cooper obviously grasps composition on an intuitive level in a way Tim Hodgkinson clearly doesn't.

I decided to title this post "Western Culture" because of a recent addition I made to my tea paraphernalia--a triple beam scale. I've put off getting a scale for quite a while--I feel like I've caved in to the influence of Western tea culture, which is always prodding us to add science into our tea preparation--time our tea with electronic timers, measure each serving with an electronic scale, and use precise water temperature for every tea we brew. For me, drinking tea is in many ways a rejection of these kinds of modern "necessities"--how can I relax and approach a tea on its own terms if I'm constantly fretting over parameters of mass, temperature and time? But, I do have to admit that scales can come in very handy--if I've got a 10g sample I want to split in half, if I've got a tea that cost me $3/gram and I don't want to waste any by eyeballing portions, if I'm trying to figure out how many pots' worth of a tea I have left, or if I'm portioning out pot-sized amounts like I did recently to send out samples to several people. Luckily, I managed to compromise--this scale isn't electronic, and it's got a dingy vintage vibe. I've got a friend who picks through thrift shops and it took him less than two weeks to find it after I told him I was in the market for one--$20, a nice break from $50-$60 for a newer Ohaus-style scale. One of the cool (but kind of irrelevant) things about triple beam scales is that they measure mass rather than weight, which is relative to gravity. Pretty much all electronic scales measure weight, which can actually slightly vary depending on where you are on the earth (some places actually have more or less gravity); but since triple beam scales balance a specific mass (1g, 10g, .10g) against whatever you're measuring, they're accurate regardless of gravity. Thank god! If I ever find myself preparing tea on the moon, my Welch triple beam scale will produce accurate results when all electronic scales would fail!

So, yet again, why all the talk about obscure music when this is supposed to be a tea blog? The short, unfriendly answer is "It's my blog and I can write about whatever I want to." The longer answer: After considering the scientific vs. the intuitive (gong fu, if you will) in tea preparation, I realized the title "Western Culture" is much more apt than I originally intended; the concept is mirrored in the compositions on Henry Cow's Western Culture. How much of the joy of tea appreciation is lost when we get caught up in scientific accuracy and precision in the brewing process? Conversely, can we really expect to remove all science from tea preparation and expect every pot to turn out phenomenally? I'm sure we all strike a balance between both ends of the spectrum, which is why Western Culture works so well as an album--of course, having Fred Frith on guitar and Chris Cutler on drums doesn't hurt. I'd be interested to hear how much science you use when it comes to tea preparation.

January 9, 2010


I've been hinting at this since early December, so here it finally is. I took the plunge and ordered a few pieces from Malaysian vendor, Skip4Tea. Now, I certainly don't believe that I'm the first person to find, know about, or even order from Skip4Tea (if you feel like wading through the inefficient morass that is TeaChat, there's a few posts on there), but I suspect a lot of people have checked it out and opted against ordering because a) The website doesn't contain a whole lot of English, and what's there ain't exactly articulate or in-depth, and b) Pretty much none of the teas are offered in sample form. But, it's been a while since I've branched out and tried a new vendor and part of me was hoping for a lucky draw: some reasonably mature-tasting sheng pu-erh at a reasonable price. Here's what I bought.

ZhongCha "Big Leaf" 90's 357g bing ($88), so-named because of the large leaf that's embedded along with the nei fei on the top of the bing. This is the only bing I ordered, and I'd also describe it as the most humidly-stored of the purchase. A look at Skip4Tea's photos will give you an idea; there's a bit of a colorful dusting on the leaves--nothing to be too afraid of though. The first time I tasted this tea I used a low leaf/water ratio just to have a taste and only rinsed the leaves once and was surprised by a bit of fruitiness in the flavor profile that I've not tasted in any other pu-erhs before...Malaysian storage? The second time I gave a more traditional portion two rinses and brewed as I regularly would, and the flavor profile was a bit more standard. Humid storage taste in the first few brews (less so than, for example, Nada's HK-stored Grand Yellow Label, which sadly has the ability to turn my stomach a bit), a diminished hint of smoke, and pretty strong flavor. Decent aging progression, I'd say (though an exact date wasn't given), but I wouldn't classify this as mature by any means. With these pu-erhs labeled simply "90's" I tend to assume an implied "Late," since most sellers would be happy to persuade you into believing a tea's age is older rather than younger. For a late-90's tea, I'm satisfied with the aging progress and after tasting it a few more times I'd say there's a chance I'd buy more, since the price isn't obscene. I need to also note that I'm not especially familiar with Zhong Cha as a discrete brand (as opposed to Zhong Cha as a government labeling system imposed on the major factories after the Cultural Revolution), and since this tea is 90's I'm not sure if it's Zhong Cha brand or another factory's tea wrapped in the usual Zhong Cha wrapper, nor is my Chinese anywhere close to being able to make any sense out of the wrapper. I'll bet someone out there can easily educate me with regards to the differences between Zhong Cha factory and Zhong Cha labelling--I'd be much obliged.

ZhongCha "Aged Tree" 80's Square 300g Brick ($137). This was the most expensive item in the purchase, as well as the oldest and most disappointing. This tea looks and tastes remarkably like Nada's 80's loose "big leaf" pu-erh (albeit a little more complex and flavorful); giant, brittle leaves, really sweet liquor. In the Nada description for that tea he notes it's made from yellowed leaves that are picked out of the blend for the main cake production; this is only the second tea I've tried with these characteristics, but I'd hazard a guess that it's the same thing, since the leaves don't look or feel like your standard pu-erh, and they don't expand much at all when brewed (a sketchy factor in my book). Really, though, this tea tastes pretty mature--sweet, smooth, no smoke or bitterness, it's just not really what I've come to look for in aged pu-erh. I think I'll actually enjoy it as I gradually pick away at the brick for casual sessions, but I wouldn't buy another one (especially when the Nada loose pu-erh is so much cheaper, even if it's not quite as good). As it happens, I couldn't buy one if I wanted to--the last one sold out sometime recently. No biggie.

Xiaguan "No Wrap" 94 100g Tuo $33. Not sure how to verify that this tuo is Xiaguan or from 1994, since there's no wrapper, but it turned out to be a decent performer. The harshness and smoke have mellowed a lot--they're both there in traces, but not enough to detract from this tea's maturity, which is fair. Humid storage for this one as well, but not near as much evidence in the flavor (or to the eye) as the Zhong Cha bing. Compared with the NadaCha budget model 90's tuo (sorry to keep comparing to NadaCha teas, especially if you haven't had them--last one, I swear), I'd say this one wins out in complexity and fortitude, although it's less mellow. I'm not a huge 100g tuo cha fan, but this tea is ok. There are still 49 left (as of this writing), so I could see myself getting a couple more for cheap thrills if there's nothing else pressing my interest. Not a bad value considering the price and agedness, but there's something about small tuo cha that doesn't push my thrill button very often.

Unwrapped Raw 90's 250g Brick ($63) Finally we have this standard rectangular brick. No wrapper, but no pretenses about factories or age other than "90's," to which the thick, dark liquor and mellowed leaf color would seem to attest. This tea is smoky, but surprisingly the smoke is almost totally unoffensive. Although I wouldn't rate this kind of smokiness highly in a "mature" aged pu-erh, it doesn't bother me a whole lot here because the tea has a ways to go any way you look at it, and because there's quite a bit I like about the rest of the package. So, the liquor is dark, the flavor is really quite full, and the tea goes on for countless infusions. The smoke gradually decreases as infusions continue, to the point where it's merely second fiddle to the solid tea taste. Despite its flaws, this tea might be my favorite. Though I feel the same about tight brick compression as I do about tuo cha and iron bing compression, something about this tea seems right for aging potential. It's nice to see a tea that seems really strong in spite of its aging, especially one whose primary flaw is only a smoky flavor.

Unrelated to the teas themselves, Skip4Tea has pretty good customer service--they responded quickly to my inquiries in understandable English and packed the tea well. What I don't understand, though, is their order fulfillment--I ordered at the very beginning of December and the tea didn't ship until the 16th. Why, I don't know. Aside from not being able to sample the teas, shipping is the other main issue with Skip4Tea--you only have one option and it's not cheap. These 4 teas cost about $50 to ship. Granted, it took less than a week to arrive when it finally did ship, but I think most of us would happily trade a couple of weeks for $20-$30 in shipping fees. I'll also note that Skip4Tea offers a whole lot of more recent pu-erh vintages, and if you peruse the site you'll probably find that the prices look really quite reasonable by western standards. If you're interested in less aged pu-erh than I've been talking about here, the prices only get lower.

To sum up, the brick and the bing are my top teas right now. If I were to order more, it would be these teas, or maybe some yixing; they have a few pots that aren't half bad looking, but it's a slippery slope when there's little to no description and the site is only a middleman for other sellers. Tough to verify authenticity on something so expensive. For this quality and vintage of pu-erh, I'd say Skip4Tea is about as good a source as any, but it's a whole hell of a lot riskier than the other vendors we're all used to. Admittedly the adventure of trying a risky place was part of my motivation with this experiment (and to try and maybe provide a bit of helpful info)--because of its particular flaws, Skip4Tea isn't going to supplant my favorite tea vendors or probably even return to to the top of my purchase list within the next few months, but overall I'm satisfied with the experience and met my other main goal, which was not getting completely swindled! If anyone's interested in trying these teas for fun, shoot me an email and I'll be happy to send out some samples; you have to try them all though!