Sunday, October 27, 2013

2013 A few Single Trees, maocha, from The Essence of Tea



A beauty of a tea session today, drinking this lovely maocha. It treated me to all sorts of interesting complexity the moment I started to warm the leaves. A wonderful perfume that continually evolves. But what I like best are the still moments between sips, when it really shows its essence. A profound deep calm, and occasional gifts of sweetness on the tongue, plus the many nuances of perfume filling the head. I feel blessed.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

New storage experiment

So... my pumidor experiment has lost its luster. Earlier this year I started to notice the teas were losing strength in aroma and complexity. It was as if they were falling asleep and fading away. I have a couple of theories as to why that might have happened. Despite my cabinet being stuffed so full of tea cakes it's sometimes dangerous to even open the door, I think there was still too much air circulating. The added fans, while they were very helpful in bringing all corners of the cabinet to consistent temperature and RH, may have been part of the problem. But after talking with some folks I started to wonder if the other issue might be the fact that most of my cakes are "un-tonged." They're simply stacked, one on top of the other, with only the thin paper wrapper between the tea and the air. So starting around May or June, I began a new experiment.

I plopped down a bit of money (not much) for an impulse sealer and started sealing up some of my cakes, just like you see in tea shops in many parts of China. The results have been encouraging. The aroma becomes concentrated again and it seems that all the wonderful nuance and complexity I love so much about these teas becomes redirected back into the tea again, instead of dissipating into the air. Over the months as I would taste-compare sealed teas to unsealed ones, I eventually became a convert and now nearly all of my teas are sealed up. The only exceptions are those which I purchased originally in tongs (which I think is the most ideal way to store teas), and those few cakes I'm still leaving unsealed to continue with the comparisons.

Another good option (even better) would be to store one's tea cakes in those large yixing jars. Like the tong wrappers, the clay does a good job of keeping the tea protected, limiting the amount of air that can circulate, while still allowing penetration of humidity. Admittedly, the plastic wrap does not do that. But I don't have the funds to purchase a bunch of large yixing jars, and even if I did I have so many tea cakes it would probably require an addition to the house to store them all. So for now, until I come up with a better option, it's the shrink-wrap route for me.

But the pumidor is still useful. It's great for "conditioning" a tea cake, either right after purchasing or after removing it from the shrink wrap. When a tea cake that has been dried out somewhat is placed into that warm humid environment for a short time, it does incredible things to the taste and aroma of the tea.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Tasting my way through the pumidor


I continue to bang through the tea cakes in the pumidor, often several a day, making note of what I find and endlessly fascinated by the whole process. When I started this endeavor a couple months ago the first thing I noticed was that the teas seemed to be weak and subdued pretty much across the board. I also noticed that the terrific aromas that used to emanate from the pumidor were now also subdued and quiet. The only difference I could find (aside from the passage of time) was a change in RH. When I first started down the path of controlled humidity I'd set the RH around 70%, but for reasons I've already covered here I dropped it to 55% many months ago. So, curious to know if the subdued character of the teas now might be related, I recently (slowly) bumped the RH back up to around 63%. Within a week (even with just a few degrees of change) the cabinet was smelling heavenly again. Still, the teas have yet to respond when brewed. I think this is due to the length of time it takes for the humidity in the cabinet to penetrate the cakes in the cabinet. I've noticed that it takes a couple of months for the humidity to stabilize inside the cabinets, so my guess is that the initial bump in aroma is due to just the surface of the tea cakes responding, but the interiors of the cakes will take some time to catch up. As always, time will tell.

You've probably noticed that I'm no longer dedicating whole posts to waxing poetic about specific teas. Lots of different reasons for this, but I'm going to break from that norm here. Might as well mention some of the teas that have impressed me as I taste my way through the cabinet. This is not meant to be a roaring endorsement or guarantee that you or anyone else will also find merit, it's just a mention of what I've been drinking (pretty much randomly removed from the shelves) and what I've been enjoying.

2005 Seven Sons on top, 2006 Douji on the bottom
A few years ago, a wise tea drinker with decades of experience with puer showed me some tea cakes that had staining around the edges of the wrapper. He told me this was a good sign and signified an active tea. Of the teas in my cabinet, this 2006 Douji Large Leaf sheng (pictured above) is the most edge-stained of all. I pulled it out recently to give it a taste. I admit I had high hopes it would shine, so was surprised to find the taste and aroma to be quite subdued (again, this could be due in part to what's mentioned above). But nearly every tea has it's strengths and weaknesses (some have no strengths at all, like a 1997 Feng Qing mini-tuo I sampled recently, and once in a rare while you hit on one that seems to have few, if any, weaknesses). Despite the subdued aroma and taste, this Douji impressed me with it's viscous silky mouthfeel and a deep, strong and spreading qi. Overall, it reminded me of what I've come to associate with truly old tree sheng, with it's subtlety accompanied with thick mouthfeel and deep qi. But the qi was short-lived and not as long lasting as some others I've had. This leaves me with questions -- how much of the character profile I've been attributing to "old tree" is really more correctly attributable to large leaf varieties? It seems another branch has sprouted for me on the path of learning puerh.

Another tea I enjoyed a great deal recently was a 2005 Seven Sons Wide Arbor sheng (also pictured above). It had turned the corner toward aging, exhibiting a terrific sweet woody aroma, good complexity and was full of vibrancy and strong activity, to boot. Really pleasant all around. I'll be looking to pick up several more of these if they're still available (this one was from Best Tea House in Canada). It'll be interesting, though, to compare the newly purchased cakes to the one I've been storing since first acquiring it a few years ago. As with most teas I sit with, I'm left with more questions to explore -- how much of the sweet aged character of this tea is due to how it's been stored here at my house? Will the new cakes I purchase taste the same and be as enjoyable as this one? It's another "buyer beware" scenario.


Friday, April 26, 2013

The aging of a puerh drinker

It's no secret that my motivation for keeping up with this blog has pretty much fallen away. The near-daily tea practice remains though, and brings me much satisfaction. Been thinking of doing an update here, but just haven't wanted to get the camera out and do the work required to capture a few compelling shots. So, in lieu of a "here's whats up at my tea table" photo, I offer you this beautiful image of somewhere high up in the Alishan National Scenic Area of Chiayi County, Taiwan -- a recent Bing daily wallpaper, which I've become a huge fan of. With the enormously annoying barrage of advertisements, marketing ploys and deplorable news and politics on the web these days, it's truly refreshing to open the internet to Bing's ever-changing images of great beauty in the world.

My tea adventures have taken many turns. On the pumidor front, things are coming along nicely. My initial thoughts of wanting to perhaps accelerate aging (given that I'll be into my 70's by the time many of these cakes start to reach good numbers in years) have subsided. I'm of the mind now that there's no such thing as "accelerated aging," short of going shou (and even here I think it can be argued that shou is a whole different animal, merely an approximation of an aged sheng).  Teas do what they do, and take their own sweet time doing it. The controlled humidity of the pumidor does help to soften hard edges and tame aggressive tendencies, which I like and which (for the time being) keeps me committed to the pumidor idea (at least for my tastes in tea). I've adjusted the RH to a steady 60% (give or take a few percentage points) with the idea that I simply want to keep the teas comfortable and active. No more trying to push the RH high to make the teas "age" faster. That's nothing but a silly fantasy. But, upon researching the matter of enzymes, phenols, volatile aromatics and such, it's well-documented that environment plays a crucial role. So at this point I'm going for a not-too-dry, not-too-humid, not-too-cold, not-too-hot middle ground. Everything in moderation, as the saying goes.

Old trees in Alishan, Taiwan
Have been spending a lot of time drinking yancha, learning the ins and outs of how to brew and appreciate it.
That's been a lot of fun, and like puerh is proving to be a long but enjoyable learning curve. As for puerh, I've started to pull random cakes from the pumidor to taste and compare to my notes from years past. This has been truly interesting. Not surprisingly I suppose, many of those first cake purchases are positively unexciting now. But I'll keep them around to see how they continue to change. Not that I expect miracles, but it's just good education. I still don't know for sure if it's just a matter of uninteresting tea, or if it might be due to an awkward age (many are in the 5 to 7 year old range), although given that I purchased these early on when I was still focused mainly on taste and aroma and had only the faintest ideas of a tea's energy or activity, I'm guessing these cakes will never impress much. But we'll see.

Speaking of the age-range of a puerh, I've noticed that those teas which have crossed over into the 10+ year range have definitely made a significant jump from "young and green" to "okay, yes, this tea is definitely developing that aged character." It shows in the darkening color of the tea soup, the deepened and woodier aromas and flavors. Still can't say I notice any change in a tea's energy, but perhaps like those early cake purchases this will develop as I gain more experience tasting different puers as they age.

And... can it be? Am I really starting to develop that enviable ability to name a tea's origin just by taste and aroma (the ultimate party-trick at tea gatherings)? After tasting so many puerhs and taking copious notes, it seems this sort of thing just starts to happen. I've still got a ways to go (the specific character of Naka, anyone??), and am not the type for party tricks, but it lends a certain awareness of increasing mastery while sitting alone at the tea table each day. Another of the joys of this whole tea practice thing.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tea suchness



Tasting Some New Tea from Ekkei

A gift of "immortal buds" sent from an old friend 
"first spring picking from Ekkei fields," he said.
Opening the packet, color and fragrance filled the room, 
Proud banners and lances of outstanding quality.
Clear water dipped at the banks of the Kamo 
Well boiled on the stove, just right for new tea.
The first sip revealed an incomparable taste, 
Purifying sweetness refreshing to the soul.
No need wasting time on butterfly dreams
Rising up, utterly cleansed, beyond the world,
I smile, there's not one word in my dried-up gut,
Just the wondrous meaning beyond all doctrine.

I've been poor so long, pinched with hunger, 
Now a kind gift to soothe my parched throat, 
Dewdrops so sweet they put manna to shame--
A fresh breeze rises round me, lifting me upward.
It doesn't take seven cups like Master Lu says. 
My guests get old Chao-chou's one cup tea;

And whoever can grasp the taste in that cup
Whether stranger or friend, knows my true mind.
Sake fuels the vital spirits, works like courage,
Tea works benevolently, purifying the soul.
Courageous feats that put the world in your debt 
Couldn't match the benefit benevolence brings.
A tea unsurpassed for color, flavor and scent,
Attributes that Buddhists refer to as "dusts,"
But only through them is the true taste known,
They are the Dharma body, primal suchness,

            -- Baisao (1675-1763)


(note: "Dusts," according to Buddhist philosophy, are the objects or fields of sensation and perception: form, sound, smell, taste, tactile feeling and thoughts)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Pumidor progress report

1997 cake


The pumidor experiment continues and I’ve been learning plenty in the process, as expected.  Wanting to stay on top of any potential for mold mischief I did a thorough check of all the cakes in mid December, two months of time in the cabinet, opening the wrappers on the majority of them to check closely for any signs.  The good news is that nearly all the cakes looked fantastic.  Pristine, even. I took a ton of pictures, mostly for my own records.  Seems silly to post them here, but I'll put up a few for the visuals.


"worry spot" circled, 1993 cake


For the most part, there were no serious issues with regard to controlled humidity storage.  But there were a few red flags present on a couple of cakes.  Among the oldest cakes there were two that seemed to show very tiny areas of a bit of white frosting.  Keep in mind that I was examining these with a bright light and a magnifying glass (in full anal-retentive mode, I admit).  I took pictures of each of the worrisome areas and sent them off to several folks whose knowledge I trust.  None could see in the photos what I saw with the magnifying glass.  The photo pictured here is one such "worry spot" on a '93 cake.  I've circled the area that had me concerned, but looking at it now I have a hard time seeing what had me alarmed.  Still, it makes sense that it would be the older cakes, whose storage history is unknown, that would have the highest likelihood of developing mold issues.  So this was lesson #1 – be the most cautious and conservative with the oldest cakes.

2012 cake, mold developing on wrapper

But down on the lowest shelf, on a few of the youngest cakes in my collection, there was a clear problem starting to develop.  The three cakes were located in a stack of cakes setting closest to the humidifier unit.  All were from the same vendor and had been wrapped in particularly thick paper.  As I pulled them out to examine them I noticed that the knot of paper at the center of the underside of the cakes seemed actually damp (not hugely so, but noticeably so) and there were tiny spots of the very beginning of mold growth on and around the knot of paper.  None of the other cakes in that stack (or anywhere else in the cabinet) had this same problem, only these three with the thick wrappers.  Fortunately, the mold was only on the surface of the paper and hadn’t penetrated to the cakes inside.  I’d caught it at the very earliest stages (lesson #2 – check your cakes EARLY and OFTEN if you’re adding humidity).  But this was clearly a worrisome sign so I decided to open the doors to the cabinet to let the tea dry out for a period of time.  I also removed the wrappers from these three cakes and replaced them with new wrappers. 
same 2012 cake pictured above,  wrapper removed
The small room where the pumidor cabinet is located is particularly warm due to the way the house was designed.  It’s consistently about 10 degrees warmer than the rest of the house.  While the cakes were sitting open to the dry air I placed a hygrometer in the room to check on the humidity levels.  Without the humidifiers going and with the high heat of the room, the RH level was dry—REALLY dry--averaging between 30-35%.  The longer the cakes sat out in this very dry air, the more anxious I was to get them back in the cabinet and get the humidity levels bumped up again.  In total, they sat in the dry air for 4 weeks.  I put them back into controlled humidity in mid January. 
2001 cake
This time around I did a few things differently.  First, I shuffled the cakes in the cabinet, placing them into different spots than they were before.  Next, I placed five small (calibrated) hygrometers in different places throughout the cabinet.  Over the next week I took readings from each of the hygrometers at various times throughout the day.  It turns out the humidity levels are highest, and the temperatures lowest, in the lower part of the cabinet (graph below).  You might be thinking “Well, duh!” but when I contacted the maker of the three cakes that had mold on the wrappers he did a similar comparison of hygrometer readings in his own storage and found the opposite to be true.  Which leads to lesson #3 – never assume anything.  It just further emphasizes the importance of getting to know your own storage conditions.  There are no shortcuts or one-size-fits-all.  If you’re experimenting with controlled humidity then GET SOME HYGROMETERS (they’re cheap) and check out different areas of your storage. 

There's the whole matter of dew point, as well.  I’m learning it’s not as simple as “dew point X is good, dew point Y is bad.”  While I’m still far from understanding it all I’m currently spending a lot of time at this website, paying particular attention to the MOLD RISK factor.  While I’m sure there are more things than just RH and temperature that encourage mold growth (airflow, the type of mold spores present), it’s a pretty good start at getting one’s head around what happens when you start playing with temperature and humidity.  I sat down and charted the points from the hygrometer readings on each shelf, below.  The blue circle on the left shows the general area of the readings from the top shelf, the middle green circle shows readings from the middle shelf, and the red circle on the right from the lowest shelf, with the mold risk parameters (as defined by the dew point calculator, linked above) enclosed on the right by the darker red sideways "V" shape.  
What’s interesting is that I’ve got the set-point on my humidifier unit set at 60%, and yet the RH levels in the chart above show a range of 60-71%.  So why am I getting such high RH readings?  I think I know the answer.  The regulating unit for the humidifiers is placed at the upper right corner of the cabinet, just inside the door opening which (thanks to the info gleaned from the hygrometer readings) is likely the driest spot in the cabinet.  Fortunately this is an easy fix.  I just need to factor in the average RH difference when calculating the set-point for the humidifier unit.

As for the inconsistency of RH levels between shelves and the pooling of humidified air in the lowest part of the cabinet, that’s a little trickier.  Clearly it’s an airflow issue, but there are different ways to address it and I need to figure out which way is best.  The humidifier unit has two sets of fans.  The first set is located on the top of each humidifier.  Whenever the regulator signals that the RH is low it causes the fans on the humidifier units to switch on, blowing humidified air straight upward (this is also why I have no cakes directly above the units on any of the shelves).  The second set of fans (two small fans like the kind you’d find in a desktop computer) are placed at the top of the cabinet along the back wall and run as auxiliary components to the unit, with their own set-point for turning on and off that has nothing to do with the RH levels.  For the data points in the graph above they were set to go off for one minute in duration every 20 minutes.  I’ve changed them now to go off every 10 minutes and am hoping this will help to balance the hygrometer readings.  Time will tell.  I may have to set them to go off even more, or I might have to place them in different areas of the cabinet.  There’s also the option of adding a few more computer fans to the two that are already hooked up.  I’m also giving some thought to the general density and arrangement of the cakes on the shelves as this could also contribute to or impede air flow.  This issue will probably require trying out different approaches to discover the best solution.  I'll keep you posted!

This is all a great deal of fussiness, I know.  But I find great fun in experiments like these, and most importantly I really love what the added humidity is doing to the taste of my teas!  :)