5 years: a good age for Ripe Puerh

It is often said that a good age for Shu, or ripe Puerh is after the 5 year mark.

In essence this gives it time to rest and continue some of the fermentation that had been kick started by the wet piling process. It could also be said that it allows some of the wet pile taste (wo dui 渥堆) to dissipate, which, to be honest, probably depends more on the storage than the age.

I have roughly 30/70 ripe to raw Puerh in my collection and I always get a mild panic when I realise I have been chipping away at the older ripe teas that I have not enough younger cakes to replace the vacuum created.

This is partly due to tea drinking habits whereby often I will enjoy the older raw Puerh first, thus allowing time for the younger productions to come up to age. However, with my ripe collection its far less systematic and more erratic. I guess this is inevitable as some really good Menghai ripe productions can be enjoyed within the first year of production, and if you really enjoy drinking tea then why wait?

However, if you can afford to have the patience its well worth exploring the +5 year threshold.

On this occasion, and to exemplify, I have chosen a 2013 ripe production from Scott at Yunnan Sourcing. This is entirely Nan Nuo mountain material.

When initially released , Scott described it as,

“Sweet, pungent and slight bitterness all rolled into one tea.  Light-Medium fermentation gives this a subtle cha qi and mouth-watering effect making this a good bet for long-term aging!”

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I utilised a borsiliscate glass teapot to ensure a level of neutrality in brewing with approximately 120ml to a good 8 grams of leaf.

Two customary rinses were given and the initial aroma gave me memories of dry Autumn beech woodlands, not overly composty, damp or earthy but woody and fresh.

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The overwhelming flavour notes coming through were of  sour cherry, that slight familiar cherry-stone flavour you get with many aged ripes was more rounded than expected giving a richer fruity note.

The mouthfeel was not overly thick and slightly drying perhaps retaining some of the effects of Kunming storage.

The huigan was the most surprising element as it delivered both woody and peppery after tastes. This was a delight as a half expected typical camphor flavours.

At 5+ years, there were still some bitterness, as Scott originally described, but I feel this has softened and become en-robed in the sour cherry notes.

I suspect the light fermentation has allowed the tea to develop further in storage, although perhaps more gracefully due to more dryer conditions. This perhaps gives the tea more time to develop over a further few years and encorages me to put more age on it still.

I feel I could have upped the ratio of leaf to water (maybe 10 grams!?), giving a bolder outcome in the cup but I may have lost some of the more subtle level of tastes to the tea.

In conclusion, at +5 years, this ripe performs very well and should encourage more of us to store ripe productions for longer. I am perhaps slightly disappointed to not have had this tea back in 2013 to see how it developed so I also suggest that if you plan to set out to store some ripe productions for middle to long term aging that you at least get a few cakes per production so you can enjoy the wealth that comes through time.

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Tea fasting

Over the last week I have fasted off tea. It is that time of year when the seasons change and not only is it a good time to check our tea drinking habits but also  we await the bounties of Autumn tea harvests.

Recent celebrations of China’s National Day at the beginning October gives us the opportunity to drink and enjoy lots of tea among family, friends and even new acquaintances. However it maybe surprising that wine is perhaps the most preferred and consumed drink of the festival, China being the biggest producer!

During this time I find it its a good time to take stock of my tea stores and collection and establish some teas to take me through the Winter. Therefore having a fast from tea drinking, albeit for a few days, can also help us to refresh our minds and re-experience some of our favourite teas and even new ones with “beginners senses”. Enjoying well known experiences and feelings with a sense of renewal.

Autumn is therefore not an end of something but the beginning of a new season and with this I always find a small fast from tea helps to transition into this with renewal.

In approaching days I plan therefore not only set up some Winter teas but initiate the new seasons ahead with some Autumn tea.

1990’s Lao Cha Tou

In my previous post on Cha Tou I stated that the best Cha Tou are ones that are smaller in size, however it is not unusual to get some the size of large marbles. I therefore thought it would be good to review some bigger “marble sized” Cha Tou.

Because the larger Cha Tou takes longer to age I have specifically selected an older tea for this review.

The Cha Tou are from the ripening process of a Xiaguan production from the 90’s that have had some storage in Shanghai for at least 10 years.

The Cha Tou are typically the size of small Chinese dates (2-3cm in length) but vary in size as well as compression, as to be expected from this type of material.

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As you can appreciate from the photos the Cha Tou don’t have a uniform shape but I suspect they were picked out and graded by size so they all have roughly the same size and weight and all have some evidence of spores from storage which may make a welcome contribution to the final brew.

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I did the customary two rinses, followed by a good 10 second steep in the gaiwan.

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Despite fairly tight compression the nugget did show signs of opening up, this was somewhat assisted however by ensuring the water was as close to boiling I could achieve between kettle and gaiwan.

In the brew I used borehole water which is softer than most tap waters and free of chlorination. This yielded the taste of traditionally stored Puerh well without any undue “funky” flavours. The initial aromas were delicately of damp wood.

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In later steepings the colour of the brew deepened, likely due to the nugget opening up further, however there were still some compact leaves in the gaiwan that benefited from being teased out.

Overall brews 1-6 were fairly consistent with some loss of profile beyond brew #7. There was no astringency when pushed a little harder and longer in the gaiwan and quite light in delivery with the woody and camphor notes that is not also unlike an aged Liu Bao.

Having read Varat’s review of a 1990’s Xiaguan ripe brick production I can certainly detect some similarities as well as that typical Xiaguan smokiness.

Despite being fairly large in size for Cha Tou I was still able to enjoy and get a fairly decent brew. I think there is a balance between size of Cha Tou and the age of the material, it would be interesting to undertake some comparison testing, comparing age and size and brew effect. I suspect there is some middle ground to be have with Cha Tou whereby the size and the age mediate the taste.

My theory would be the older the Cha Tou the better but size having a negative effect on this, such that +10 year old Cha Tou material would be definitely worth sampling, but keep it below the size of a finger nail as a rule of thumb.

 

Cha Tou – Review

Cha Tou 茶頭 form naturally during the fermentation process of Shu Puerh as a result of the pressures of compression and the heat that occurs. Typically the wet pile processing of Puerh involves deep large piles of leaves that are turned regularly over the fermentation period, “Cha Tou” are the leaves that get stuck at the bottom of the pile and ball up and get stuck together forming hard nuggets of tea.

Literally translated as “Tea Head” you can get the impression of them as little lumps appearing in the sea of tea material during fermentation like heads bobbing.

It is suggested that the best Cha Tou are ones that are smaller in size, however it is not unusual to get some the size of large marbles that are tightly compressed and balled to such an extent that its almost impossible to unfurl them without breaking them up. I have witnessed a Cha Tou the size of a baseball that could have take out any major league player at 50 yards!!

The tightness of compression and size often leads to Cha Tou taking longer to age or change with time, whilst this may seem a good prospect it is often this reason they are somewhat under-rated in the world of Puerh.

As part of my tea samples generously gifted by  Aprtea there were some samples of a tea labelled;

“2008 Glutinous Rice Scent Tea Fossil Puerh Cooked Tea Broken silver”

I understood it from the label that “fossil” was a translation of Cha Tou , almost describing the process of unearthing some relic of the tea at the bottom of the wet piling process, like a fossil, formed from the pressure of the upper layers of material.

Hence I was keen to try!

The actual size of the Cha Tou are equivalent to the size of a dried wolfberry (Goji) and fairly consistent in size and shape.

 

I did the customary 2 washes which then delivered a steaming golden brew

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Later brews delivered darker liquor as the nuggets expanded a little and delivered their full composition of flavours and aromas.

First impressions were of a deep aroma of cooked sticky rice that floated up from the steaming bowl that was then met on initial tasting with memories of congee (a type of rice porridge) with a savoriness that almost felt I was able to taste the traditional addition of fermented tofu that is found in many of my favourite congee recipes.

The flavour of glutinous rice aroma and tastes comes from the addition of Semnostachya Menglaensis a plant indigenous to Yunnan. When the leaves are crushed, a characteristic smell of basmati rice or pandan leaves soon develops. It is a lovely “homely” smell of cooked rice that makes your mouth waters at the edges and I can definitely understand why this plant was first added to tea material. For a culture whose history is one of repeated famine and warfare, a tea that satisfies the mind and belly with flavours of cooked rice might just have made the difference between “hope” and “loss” in hard times. However, even in good times this herb is a welcomed addition, many local beliefs suggesting that its ability to detoxify and cleanse the body only adds to its value.

Going back to the brew; the steepings were fairly consistent throughout which may have to do with the fact that due to the level of compression the Cha Tou takes time to unfold, if at all. This provides for a consistent slow release of flavour and aroma that does not fluctuate too much between steepings. In this sense Cha Tou can be perfect for practicing brewing techniques without impacting too much on the experience.

Equally there is a certain density in the flavours and aromas of Cha Tou brews that makes you feel that you really are tasting something quite solid and strong, indicative of the experience of the tea material itself in form and shape.

Probably gram for gram it is slightly more expensive to brew up Cha Tou material as it loose leaf, but this is perhaps balanced out by the fact that you can easily infuse it many more times in a session.

In my fantasy tea dominated world , influenced by Hong Kong Cinema, anime and steampunk adventures I imagine Cha Tou to be a precious tea substance carried around by secret agents in small intricately carved wooden boxes. I therefore think having a small area of you own tea collection dedicated to Cha Tou is equally a precious idea.

More Cha Tou adventures to come………

 

Tea and Qi, Cha Qi and beyond

Qi character for Qi articleCha Qi is a term that is used so often in the tea community but not always easy to grasp. It would perhaps take a great tome of work to elucidate and explain both what it is and why its important. We would of course have to start in explaining what Qi is which itself would require immense reference to historic and cultural ideas and developments.The Chinese term Qi 氣 has absorbed, in the course of its long existence, numerous conceptual layers that cannot be expressed by one distinct meaning.

I therefore have to initially apologise that I can only touch upon such a topic lightly here, however I hope it might arouse some thoughts like the stirring of tea leaves in a bowl from pouring of water.

The Taoist alchemical text of the Quegu shiqi (卻穀食氣) “Eliminating Grain and Eating Qi” locates the context of Qi and food.

“Those who eat grain eat what is square; those who eat Qi eat what is round. Round is heaven; square is earth.”

The text outlines a method for replacing food with Qi. We must also consider that it sits within the Taoist idea of cultivating Qi as both a means of transcendence as well as spiritual development such that “eating Qi” may reference Qi cultivation practices above all else (i.e. qigong, nei dan).

However, we can suggest here that the value of Qi is both as a substance and a quality. In food the Qi is the level of “life force” that nourishes the individual in gross and subtle ways. In fact in some texts Qi is analogous with the word for food, in the sense of “that which nourishes/sustains life”

Therefore we can infer that Cha Qi is both the quality of a tea’s “liveliness” as well as its ability to nourish us. We have all maybe experienced a tea that has been either badly stored or over-processed , that tastes flat and has no “liveliness”, equally we have all perhaps experienced a tea that has no nourishment and does not add anything to our present physical experience of being. In this way we can correctly state that such tea lacks Cha Qi.

Opposed to this are the teas that give us a feeling of nourishment, that are lively in the cup and mouth and have a real physical presence in the body. Such teas we can describe as having strong or present Cha Qi.

In the Huangdi Neijing (黃帝內經) , an important text in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qi can be perceived in the movement of energy from one point to another, from one form to another and influences or moves,  hence “gives life to”. This is more in keeping with Confucian ideas of Qi being breath or “vital air” that moves and is transmutable. In small seal script, an archaic form of early Chinese calligraphy, the character for Qi certainly denotes visually vapors arising from food that confer its vitality.

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Whilst even earlier, Qi is denoted by the following character:

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which suggests something subtle contained within, a subtle yet vital substance perhaps?

If we image a steaming bowl of tea we have all this going on:

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Both the heat energy as steam and the aromas is perhaps our initial experience of Cha Qi, as the power of both the scent and bouquet of tea has the energy to both move us and generate a physical response whilst also giving us a feel of the vitality or liveliness of the tea. Let us remind ourselves about my earlier posting on tea aroma and the fact that there are aromatic chemicals in the tea bouquet that have documented physical effect (“Tea Chemistry & Aroma”).

Something we cannot objectively and empirically point out during a tea session but is experienced is the effects of a specific tea, which might make us think of something subtle contained within the brew alike the character 300px-气-bronze.svg.

In the pivotal Taoist text, the Tao Te  Ching 道德經, the words;

the Sage wears rough clothing, but carries jade inside”, 

becomes an analogy for understanding Cha Qi in the context of Tea as the Sage.  That is to say, through all our standard senses we can understand and perceive the subjective nature of any tea but something within the tea, that is precious like jade is secreted, this being the Cha Qi. Similar to jade it is invaluable and exceeds the mundane. Like the use of powdered jade in alchemical formulas to lengthen life and confer strength, equally mysterious and enriching is the Cha Qi. 

If you expect to find it by looking for it you might miss it but otherwise Cha Qi remains something that defies description but nonetheless delivers a highly subjective and potent experience in a good tea session.

 

 

 

 

 

Drinking the Big Red Robe 大红袍

I really have to confess I do enjoy Wuyi oolongs and can really appreciate the prestige and respect they attract. If you have yet to taste these range of teas you must enjoy both the uniqueness and quality that exists.

The Wuyi region of Fujian, China is where some of the most cherished and renowned tea plants have been cultivated.  Such famous varietals include Bai Ji Guan (White Cockscomb), Tie Luo Han (Iron Arhat) and Shui Jin Gui (Golden Water Turtle).

One such varietal that attracts some of the most prestige is Da Hong Pao (大红袍) AKA “Big Red Robe”. The original three remaining Da Hong Pao tea trees produce only small quantities of leaf material each year (<1 kg) and in 1998 just 20 grams of Da Hong Pao tea from one of these original trees was sold for ¥156,800.

Fortunately for us tea cuttings taken from the original plants have been used to produce similar grades of tea from genetically identical plants.

I was therefore delighted to receive a sample of Da Hong Pao in a bundle of teas kindly gifted by Teasenz.

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Teasenz offer a Wuyi sampler pack of 6 different teas with Da Hong Pao as just one of these.

As with many of the famous and prestige tea varietals of Wuyi Shan there are a number of stories and folk lore around their origins. One such story tells us of a Ming Emperor’s Mother being cured of an illness by the tea collected from the original Da Hong Pao tea bushes. As a votive of thanks, the Emperor sent expensive red cloth to clothe the original tea bushes, hence the name.

A more interesting, if somewhat perculiar tale, tells us how monkeys were employed to pick the tea and were clothed in red cloth by the monks who originally cultivated the plants. Image of Monkeys in red cloth remind me of something out of Pu Song Ling’s Liaozhai Zhiyi (“Strange Tales from Chinese Studio” ), one of my favourite reads!!

Whatever the true story is we know for certain that red in Chinese culture has deep associations and power and is traditionally the symbolic color of happiness. It is used widely in Chinese culture as a colour of fortune and joy and I can assert that there is all this encompassed in a tea session that involves “Big Red Robe”. It is therefore not unreasonable to suggest that the name might be a way of communicating the joy and pleasure that en robes you as you experience this varietal of tea.

The Tea Session:

The dry leaves looked consistent in colour and texture, which is often a good sign in rock oolongs as blending is not uncommon. The aroma being typically Wuyi oolong, namely minerally, toasty and vegetal.

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I brewed the Da Hong Pao in a gaiwan with just off the boil water 95-100 degrees celcius, with approximately 6 grams of leaf to about 120ml of water. One customary rinse was given followed by “flash” brews.

I stacked steepings 1+2 , 3+4 etc. which delivered a consistent golden bright tea soup.

The initial wet aroma was chocolatey and minty delivering a sweet sugar cane taste and returning light citrus flavour with thickness on the lips.

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With later steeps a menthol huigan emerged, but without any bitterness or astringency.

The wet leaves looked very consistent which again is reassuring that the material hadn’t been blended

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Overall the tea was delicate and very easy drinking and still delivered the same level of quality in the cup around steeping 8.

The tea is what I would expect from a good Da Hong Pao in that I did feel nourished and revived throughout the session like I had drank some revitalising elixir, the Cha Qi being gentle yet solid.

Da Hong Pao is an exceptional tea, and whilst I may never be fortunate to taste the leaves from the original three remaining teas a good quality Big Red Robe production will deliver something you can imagine is there in the mother trees. This being a divine delicate taste that revives and nurtures your spirit.

Heat for Tea – Going beyond Fire

The 8th century classic Taoist text Yin Fu Jing  expounds;

“The Fire is born in Wood

Our attention to the heat source for our water for tea is often not considered a priority as we become dependent upon both modern technology and lifestyles such that these choices are removed.The same amount of energy is required to heat one litre of water no matter which method of heating used. The only difference is the methods used and the loss of both energy in the process and the quality of the energy released by the fuel that creates the heat, the fire element in our tea session.

We are reminded that fire is intimate to both the beginning of human culture and to the processing of tea.

Fire is both the warmth we carry through the cold times of our life and the technology that manipulates so many of our historic innovations. It is universally celebrated in all religions and cultures and rich with symbolism and folklore.

Similarly in tea , fire is both the heat that “kills green” (shāqīng 殺青) as well as the heat that drys, the heat that roasts and the heat that prepares water.

There are many discussions around fire and heat for water for tea, with references to classic texts such as Lu Yu’s Cha Jing which outlines charcoal as the finest source of fire and preparing fire for tea as one of the nine skills of a tea master.

We are mostly dependent upon electricity and gas through the medium of a kettle to heat our water for tea. Taking the principle of the Yin Fu Jing, that fire is born of wood, we perhaps need to give some attention to the energy sources for this.

Typically gas fired burners are a product of natural gas, produced over millennium when layers of decomposing plant and animal matter are exposed to intense heat and pressure under the surface of the Earth and is a non-renewable heat source. Equally electric burners are often powered by the grid which is mostly produced from gas or non-renewable hydrocarbons such as coal or oil. Typically only around 17% of electricity is supplied from renewable sources e.g. wind/sun (EEA 2018).Electricity incurs energy loss in both its generation from its base fuel as well as its transport to the domestic plug socket.

From a Taoist perspective non-renewable hydrocarbon fuels are extremely Yin in constitution, and whilst producing fire is also very consumptive of the Yang in this process, hence inefficient. Fire from this source is likely to produce different heat than from other sources.

When we consider charcoal as the source for fire it is both renewable and sustainable, however is less convenient and requires skill in use. However some charcoal is not that environmentally friendly both due to the way its produced and the wood source used. Therefore it is clear we also need to be mindful of this.

Herbal charcoals have been used traditionally in Chinese medicine for many years, being one of the most characteristic processing methods of Chinese herbal medicines with the purpose of changing the herbal nature (He et al 2016) hence dependent on what wood is used determines the nature of the fire and hence the water, so the flow goes! This is why Pine is chosen for drying certain teas yet bamboo charcoal might be used for heating the water for the same tea.

A charcoal brazier may be an ideal but practically not something we can operate in an office or 10th floor apartment without incurring suspicion or even contravening fire regulations.

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For most, therefore. we are constrained by the restrictions that modern lifestyles impose on us. This is something that I have been reflecting over now for some time, perhaps alongside my parallel concern around the utility of smokeless moxa over traditional mugwort fluff.

Whilst alcohol burners are perhaps more convenient in modern settings and alcohol itself is equally sustainable and renewable , having better properties than other hydrocarbons, they still require skill and equally pose risks in contravening fire regulations. There are some interesting products available on the market (example below) but are still are more confined and practicable to formal tea sessions than casual brewing.

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Naturally produced fermented alcohol when burnt gives off water, CO2 and heat that is Yang and very efficient (277.7 kJ per mole of ethanol).The production of alcohol for fuel is also more energy efficient than that of natural gas and reminds me of another portion of the Yin Fu Jing ;

“The way of nature is quiet ..  the wise know the way of nature..”

Although, still, in opting for alcohol over charcoal we are still met by a level of incongruence with the  modus operandi of contemporary culture and living. Unpacking an alcohol burner and matches in the workplace might not do you any favours!!

In some sense giving appropriate attention to tea should include appropriate attention to all elements of tea consumption, so perhaps the problem of fuel sources isn’t really a problem at all more of a problem around giving appropriate attention. What I am trying to convey is that whilst the ideal and most perfect fuels for heating water might not be the most practicable they do ask us to question our tea practice , in that if we are brewing up in the office or in a confined space perhaps we should consider changing our environment or our practice so that we can use charcoal or ethanol and also take the time to be skillful in their use; this will only add positively to our experience and knowledge.

However, I remain mindful that even with this intention in our minds and hearts it is no something easily enacted. Other thoughts include such devices as Solar kettles, (what better source of fuel for heating water for tea than a primary source?!!) however they still require full sun for up to 2 hours to reach appropriate temperatures (something of a challenge in the Northern Hemisphere).

Solar-Rocket-Horizontal

I therefore come back to the practicalities of daily modern living and going beyond fire to establish appropriate fuel for heating water for tea. One thing I have yet to discuss is induction stoves that convert electricity into magnetic fields. These are still reliant on grid electricity for such devices which incur both energy loss and questions around their source fuel, however in principle they are more energy efficient by producing an alternating magnetic field that heats up ferrous material. The question remains around the impact of such magnetic fields on both water and tea people, forget Cha Qi what about human Qi? Recent research remains concerning, and certainly makes me question both the health and positive effects of using induction stoves for heating water for tea. One study suggested that induction stoves far exceed the radiation limits in use recommended by established regulations (Christ et al 2012) whilst another study suggested safe operational distances might be established at 1 metre from such devices (Aerts et al 2017).

May be then we have to keep revisiting this question as we gain both knowledge and experience within our tea practice.

Our future for modern fuel for tea processing and brewing could be a positive one that also impacts on our tea experience and expands outward beyond the Cha Pan. If our electricity supply becomes 100% renewable from Wind or Sun we could be looking at a something unique and potent in the heating of water for tea that lends itself closer to Taoist ideals suitable for modern lifestyles.

Aerts S, Calderon C, Valič B, Maslanyj M, Addison D, Mee T, Goiceanu C, Verloock L, Van den Bossche M, Gajšek P, Vermeulen R. Measurements of intermediate-frequency electric and magnetic fields in households. Environmental research. 2017 Apr 1;154:160-70.
Christ A, Guldimann R, Bühlmann B, Zefferer M, Bakker JF, van Rhoon GC, Kuster N. Exposure of the human body to professional and domestic induction cooktops compared to the basic restrictions. Bioelectromagnetics. 2012 Dec;33(8):695-705.
European Environment Agency (EEA) (2018) published on  https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Renewable_energy_statistics
He Y, Chen S, Yu H, Zhu L, Liu Y, Han C, Liu C. Effect of catnip charcoal on the in vivo pharmacokinetics of the main alkaloids of Rhizoma Coptidis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 2016;2016.