Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

I remembered sometime ago, a comment was made asking - " how do you break up the pu-erh for brewing"? Well, luckily while meandering through the net searching for unrelated pu-erh information I had came across these great informative pics! Hope you enjoy them!

Breaking up a Beeng

Gently insert the point of the knife with care.

Continue adding pressure carefully

Lift the separated layer gently to weaken the the leaves further

Continue finding and dislogding the weakened leaves

Nice pieces for brewing

Breaking Up Tuocha

Insert the pick inside the bowl as it is the weakest part

Continue to gently dislodge the leaves

When you feel that you have weakened a segment of the toucha from the inside, now do the same from the outide in order to further weaken a segment of the toucha.


Breaking up Zhuancha "Brick Tea"

Start from a the short-side corner

Further insert the knife until you have separated a piece suitable for brewing

Lift gently until the piece breaks off


Image Source:

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Woes of Collecting Pu-erh

When I first started collecting pu-erh, the possibility of someone selling me a counterfeited product never had crossed my mind! After all its just TEA! Right? Luckily, the teas I have purchased thus far are all genuine. (Big sigh) But how is it that a food product, tea of all things, has become the target of fraud? Well, after pondering on this for a while I have come up with a few possible reason why. First, the demand for quality pu-erh products in the western market has continued to rise. This alone gives ample opportunities for crooks to sell counterfeited teas to an uneducated market. Secondly, it is relatively easy to get low quality leaves and print a few nei feis, description tickets and wrappers, and present them as genuine. Third, which I personally feel is the biggest motivation behind counterfeiting - when people pay on the upwards of $600 USD for a tong of (7 Beeng Cakes) 2004 Yan Ching Hao it is definitely worth the risk. These factors coupled with the ever-growing tea business which is now speculated to reach $10 BILLLION USD by 2010, it is easy to see why. IT'S BIG BUCKS!!!

But how can collectors positively know they are paying for a genuine product? Well, honestly, you can't. This is just the reality that most collectors of Pu-erh have to endure; especially if you live in the U.S. or Europe. (Of course unless you have the luxury of having a tea shop in your area that sells a wide variety of teas including pu-erhs that allow you to inspect and taste the teas before you buy them. But trust me in Minnesota where jasmine is considered an “exotic” tea this is not going to happen.)

In response to the evergrowing counterfeit problem, tea producing countries are currently taking measures to safeguard their tea economies. For instance, the Taiwanese Government has adopted DNA encryption technology as part of their strategy to combat fraud and counterfeit operations. This DNA Anti-Counterfeit label is designed to make it cost prohibitive, if not impossible for counterfeiters to duplicate. And according to the Taiwan government, the technology has made it easier to quickly differentiate genuine products from counterfeited ones. Of course I understand that pu-erh does not come from Taiwan, however this example underscores the extent of the problem which exists. What is not known is if China will follow. In researching for this topic I have found no evidence that China is making any strides of implementing this practice. However, there are a few reasons to breath a sigh of relief. The Meng Hai and Xia Guan factories have taken matters into their own hands having developed micro print labels that are hard to reproduce.

The new Meng Hai Anti-counterfeit label

Here are a few tips I use to safeguard my investment. Maybe they will help you.

1. Research – I can not stress the importance of researching the products that you are thinking of buying. Read blogs, websites, publications, magazines; this alone will take you a long way. You should know how a particular product should smell, taste, and look like etc. Obtain samples of aged pu-erh and ripe pu-erh so you can get your palate accustomed to what both taste like.

2.Find a reputable vendor and become friends - Be loyal. (Of course only if they have great service) Vendors make their money on the comeback and will be more conscience when they sell to someone who loyal as they want to retain your business.

3. Ask questions - Trust me they won’t be offended if you do. They are there to sell you tea! If you are bargaining with a vendor and even remotely sound like you know what you are talking about, vendors are less likely to sell or send you a fake!

4. Take advantage of vendors that are located in the U.S. - Albeit, this alone will not be a guarantee but at least you can have comfort in knowing that it will be easier to resolve the problem in the event that a counterfeit product was sold to you.

5. Be critical of overseas vendors - I know that many of us buy teas online from overseas vendors for the convenience and price. In fact, I buy a great numbers of teas online directly from China. However, as the old Latin adage goes Caveat emptor – Buyer Beware! This is not to suggest that that there aren’t any great overseas vendors out there, but if you come across a website that doesn’t have computer based shopping with encryption and/or will only allow funds to be mailed or transferred through bank wire. These types of transactions should be taken as red flags . Try to find vendors that have a physical address and telephone numbers email etc. Email them and see if they email you back. Ask to talk to them on the telephone. Do they have customers rating? Use your common sense. How long have they been in business? When is the last time the website was updated? JUST USE YOUR GOOD JUDGMENT! Here are a few overseas vendors that I have delt with and have recieved nothing but great service: Jing Tea Shop, Dragon House (Ebay vendor), Yunnan Sourcing (Ebay vendor), TeaSpring

6. Buy samples - If you have the opportunity of buying samples from the dealers, DO SO! This is not only a learning tool, it’s also a great way to let vendors know you are a serious buyer.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Invest in T Bills or Tea?

BEIJING Five years ago, Yang Chunyan had never tasted pu'er tea. But after just one sip of the smooth, dark brew, the Beijing native was hooked. Now, Yang has opened the Aromatic Pu'er Tea House, a tiny shop located on Gulou Dong Dajie, a busy street in the center of town. "Lots of people are interested," she said. "In Beijing, pu'er tea is starting to become a trend."

Although tea drinking has been part of Chinese culture for 3,000 years, the capital's connoisseurs have only recently developed a craze for pu'er, a special aged tea indigenous to Yunnan Province in the southwest. Like vintage wine, pu'er, which is stored in compressed cakes, mellows over time, and its value appreciates. In China's supercharged economy, where no investment opportunity goes unnoticed, pu'er's popularity has sparked a wave of collectors, many of whom see the tea as a worthy speculation.

"Tea never goes bad, so it's a good investment," said Ji Xiaofeng, who manages a stall at Maliandao, Beijing's wholesale tea market. Last year, 500 grams of tea, or about 17 ½ ounces, preserved since the 1940s sold at auction for 1 million yuan, or about $125,000, he said. More modest investors can expect new tea, which sells for about 2,000 yuan per kilo, to double in value in five years.

"If you invest in the stock market, you might lose every penny. But if you invest in pu'er, it will only go up," Yang Chang, a pu'er tea collector based in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, said in a telephone interview. "This is a good, low-risk way to earn money."

Prized for its earthy, rich flavor, pu'er is a large-leafed tea gathered from centuries-old trees that thrive in Yunnan Province's changeable climate and acidic soil. After the leaves are harvested, they undergo a traditional process of compression and fermentation, which brings out the tea's particular qualities. "It has a special mildewy scent," said Shi Zongkai, a Tsinghua University professor and pu'er tea enthusiast. Some believe this mildew, which accumulates as the tea ferments, has unique health benefits, including weight loss, he added.

Yang Chang, who has collected pu'er for more than 30 years, has spent two decades researching the tea's purported medicinal properties at the Yunnan Kunming Miao Xiang Research Center.

His studies examine the effects pu'er may have on lowering cholesterol and preventing cancer. "This is my life's work," he said. Yang said these perceived medicinal qualities have contributed to pu'er's recent increased popularity. Pu'er has long been celebrated as a folk remedy, he said, adding, "Now, people care more about their health than ever before."

Though pu'er tea collectors abound in southern China, particularly Hong Kong, Taiwan and Yunnan, tea companies have only recently started to promote their product to northern Chinese consumers. Four years ago, the Yunnan provincial government sponsored a pu'er advertising campaign in the capital to promote the brew's health benefits.

Last year, Zhang Guoli, a popular Chinese actor and director, arranged for a horse caravan to travel a historic route from Yunnan to Beijing, while carrying a precious load of tea. The arduous six-month journey, which gave the tea time to ferment in the traditional manner, was widely covered in the local media. "It really introduced pu'er tea to most Beijingers," said Yang Chunyan, the tea house owner.

Pu'er's new popularity has had an impact at Beijing's Maliandao tea street market, where a two-story building filled with stalls dedicated solely to pu'er opened last year.

In another neighborhood, Yang Chunyan's pu'er tea shop has seen a small but steady flow of customers since it opened in April, and she is confident that people are becoming more interested in her product. "Southerners have collected pu'er for 20, 30 years, but many northerners still don't understand it," she said. She offers tea tastings to novice enthusiasts, educating them on the characteristics of fine leaves. "Pu'er is a drinkable antique," she said. "I love the culture of this tea, and I am thrilled to introduce it to others."

Shi, who discovered pu'er during a two-year stint working in Yunnan Province, enjoys comparing tea from different years of production. "Pu'er from the '70s, '80s, '90s, they all taste different," he said. "It's like comparing wines from France, California, Australia."

Yang Chunyan is one connoisseur who does not collect the tea, despite her passion for it. "I just like the taste," she said. "Collecting it is too expensive."

From his stall at the wholesale tea market, Ji Xiaofeng said that pu'er prices have skyrocketed in recent years. "If you have money, you can participate in the auctions," he said. "But recently, it's been more difficult to find aged tea, and there have been fewer pu'er auctions."

Yang Chunyan agreed. "Auctions are very scarce these days," she said. "And the people who participate are rarely pu'er experts. I don't even know if they drink the tea."

For some, however, aged pu'er is not the best. Yang Chang, who is known as a pu'er expert, prefers young tea - about two or three years old - as it is "the best for your health," he said. "Tea that is 20, 30, 40 years old has lost all of its valuable elements," he added. "Besides, it's becoming too hard to find."

In fact, the recent demand for aged pu'er has led to an increase in fake tea - pirated pu'er - that some purveyors try to pass off as vintage. Tea producers have developed a way to accelerate the fermentation process, which results in a weak-flavored brew, Shi said. "Most people prefer naturally fermented tea, and the prices reflect this,' he said.

It is a combination of flavor and culture that keeps pu'er lovers brewing fresh pots of tea. "I like the taste, the health benefits, the cultural experience of drinking it," Shi said. "When I make a cup of pu'er, it reminds me of my time in Yunnan Province. I can taste the history of the tea, the age of it. This experience is not possible with any other kind of tea."

By Ann Mah International Herald Tribune
'The rewards of a 'drinkable antique'

Saturday, February 17, 2007

2004 Xia Guan Toucha 100g

This is the 2004 "Te Ji" (Superior Grade) toucha from Xia Guan Tea Factory which was noted in the "First Steps to Chinese Pu-erh Tea" as being a notiable choice for collectors. Previously, the Xia Guan Factory had considered a the "Jia Ji" toucha as its higher grade leaf blend. However, the "Te Ji" toucha is now designated as its factory's flagship toucha offering.

The Xia Guan Factory first introduced the "Te Ji" or Best Grade Tuo (Bird's Nest) Cha in 2003. However, the 2004 is the first series of Xia Guan products to have incorporated on its bag antifraud micro-print with the words "Xia Guan" in an effort to frustrate would-be counterfeiters.

Initial Inspection

My first initial impression was that it was going to be a smoky brew when the first waves of its pungent smoky aroma had registered. It had seemed that it had not mellowed with almost 3 years of aging. The leaves were nice and tight, with silvery buds intermingling with the green pu-erh leaves. It looked typical for a toucha. Unfortunatly, with very little signs of aging.

Brewing Parameters

Source - Hou De Asian Art

Water-Bottle spring water, generic brand. Source of water Lafayette Springs, WS

Amount – 5g

Water Temp - Boil then cooled for 2 breaths

Method - Gongfu

Brewing Vessle - Yixing Teapot 150ml

Infusion times

First Infusion

First Infusion - Smoky yet floral with an undertone of rubber as it cooled.

Taste - Slighlty bitter, however not as bitter as I thought it would be for being so young; nutty with a lasting finish.

Second Infusion -

Aroma - Smoke and rubber has waned some; floral notes are now more pronounced.

Taste - Bitter on the back of the tongue; still playfully nutty with rubber notes comming through.

Third Infusion -

Aroma - Floral notes still present, smelling more "tea" now. Smoke is completely gone, however the rubber notes are still there albeit faint.

Taste - Wow, more rubber, wasn't expecting that since its not as noticeable in the aroma! Taste is very thick and lingering; floral notes are now mostly cascading in to rubber tones, but marrying well with the "tea" notes.

Spent Leaves -

Nice looking leaves which I would expect from a Te Ji label. Very nice and healthy plantation leaves.

Overall Impression

Its aging potential is not in question. However, from my initial inspection, the toucha did not look much different that others which I have of newer vintage. My assumptions were proven incorrect with the first taste. At first I assumed that the smoke would permeate the entire session, but to my suprise it was not a factor. Furthermore, the liquor was a deeper golden hue than that of a newer pu-erh which is also indicative of some aging. In opinion still too young to drink and to recieve any substantial pleasure. However, with the notes that I had tasted, it was a great investment and will age nicely. I believe they will compete very well with other touchas on the market today that cost more. Good find!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Tools of the Trade

As some of you have experien-ced, breaking-up pu-erh bricks, beengs, touchas or what have you into manageable pieces can be quite pesky. When pu-erh is compressed into various shapes, the results can truly be impenetrable - Ok, well I embellished it a bit, but nonetheless, they can be HARD

When I first started drinking pu-erh, my first pu-erh breaking efforts had involved a flat-head screwdriver. Albeit this proved to be somewhat effective, I was always unable to maintain the proper leverage needed to break up the pu-erh into nicely defined and even portions for proper storage. For instance, if I buy 3 beengs, I will decide which two of the three are the most pristine and place them in storage and divide the other. In dividing the beeng into two parts I will have 1/2 a beeng for drinking now, and another to be stored for at least 1-2 years which I would then periodically taste in order to evaluate as to whether or not it is worth a time investment.

1 - beeng for (Potiential) Market Speculation
1 - beeng to try in 3 or 4 years or longer
1/2 - beeng to try in 1-2 years
1/2 - beeng to drink now.
Total of 3 beengs.

As Cloud had stated in his mini-clip, a letter envelope opener is the perfect accouterment for this job. (View “Clouds Tips” in sidebar for elaboration.) Of course some tea shops will attempt to sell you a “pu-erh knife”, - but trust me it is a letter opener. The one shown is mine. It has a nice weight with nice sharp edges for easy handling, but most of all it comes with a knife blade. This has become extremely useful for cutting into boxes, ribbons, plastic packages, and for trimming leaves which look unpalatable.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Gongfu Brewing Method

I'm certain that a few of you have no understanding to what is meant when I make reference to the Gongfu Method in my pu-erh reviews. Here are a couple of short videos that will elucidate the process for brewing ripe pu-erh

As you will see, the person washes the leaves twice which is common for ripe pu-erh. However, if she were making sheng, a single wash would have been sufficient. I use the Gongfu brewing method exclusively for pu-erh teas. I am sorry for the abrupt cut off after the second wash - the part which was omitted would have shown the person cycling through the cup washing once more and subequently dumping the "second wash" over the Yixing teapot.

The following clip show the person refilling the aroma cups and then inverting them in order to enjoy the fragrant nuances that will imanate from the cups as they cool. Listen closely to how she aerates the tea in her mouth. This technique really helps to separate the delicate flavors!

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Tradition Vs. Market

If microbrews taste better than mass-produced beers, then logic should dictate that a "micropuerh" would taste better than a mass produced product? Right? This of course is not to suggest that there aren’t any fantastic mass-produced pu-erhs on the market. THERE ARE, of which I own many. But what if you can really measure quality, taste, and storage potential by how many hands have touched the leaf, even before you have sampled it. I don't know, maybe it is all in my head, Or is it? Hummm?

It has been suggested that the YiWu mountain of Yunnan produces the best pu-erh that Xishuangbanna has to offer. But why is YiWu pu-erh so coveted among pu-erh collectors and connoisseurs? Is it the quality of the wild ancient arbor trees? Or are the people and their methods responsible? Of course great leaves will produce great pu-erh, but what of methods? It has been my experience that some pu-erh vendors generally tend not emphasize a tea's production method, but rather stress leaf grade. - Probably for good reasons. Today, many pu-erh factories are just that-factories. Some have become very automated and bureaucratic in their productions where machines have replaced the opposable thumb. This is not to say that vendors at times will not advertise a pu-erh as "sun dried" or "stone pressed", but when they do, chances would be that it is a product of YiWu.

On YiWu, tea is life; literally! Most families in YiWu are in some fashion involved in the tea business. A business that has been resistant to modern processes, and in fact prefer to only utilize the methods of their fore fathers and mothers. However, understanding the increasing demand for pu-erh in China and in the West, things could unfortunately change. The government of Xishuangbanna is currently putting pressure on these families to exchange their traditional methods for ones that can meet the demands of the market. Nevertheless, as of now, YiWu pu-erh is a truly crafted product where the people are intimately involved in every part of the process.


Jinghong Zhang: Why YiWu Puer Tea Home Town in Southwest China Thai-Yunnan Project Bulletin, 2006
Photos: with explicit permission

Saturday, February 3, 2007

1994 Semi-Ripe Da-Yi Brick 250g

This was my first foray in any semi-ripe pu-erh so this was a nice experience . As the name suggests, it is a semi-ripe or (cooked) pu-erh of 1994 vintage. The surface of the brick did not show any signs of improper storage and smelled fantastic.

From my first inspection, the leaves were nice and tight and for the most part were all uniform in color. It had come with its original wrapping paper, which was definitely a plus.

Brewing Parameters:
Source: Houde Asian Art

Water-Bottle spring water, generic brand. Source of water Lafayette Springs, WS

Amount – 4.5 gm

Water temp - Boil

Method - Gongfu/2 washes

Brewing Vessle - Yixing Teapot 120ml

Infusion times

First Infusion.
Aroma - My first impression of the aroma was nice and floral. Somewhat sweet, which smelled more like shu than sheng.

Taste - No bitterness with a nice silky mouth feel; not very striking

Second Infusion
Aroma – Same aroma however more invigorating. Hint of hay. More sweet and floral this time.

Taste – Same as previous. Still has a nice viscosity that coats the throat. Taste a hint of asparagus this time. Taste really lingers after the swallow.

Third Infusion
Aroma – Noticble decline, however the aroma of hay has been replaced by sweet grass.

Taste – Still nice and silky. The asparagus taste is now gone. Still pleasantly sweet on the sides of the tongue.

Didn't feel the need to comment on the fourth and fifth brews as I felt the first 3 brews are the most telling.

Spent Leaves -

This particular brick did not come with a recipie code, and as a consquence leaf grade is unknown. However, I think it would be pretty safe to suggest that they are lower grade leaves. Interestingly, you can see the blend of the ripe and sheng leaves.

I was disappointed in its durability as it only went 5 rounds. I was hoping that being a semi-ripe brick it would have the longevity of an aged pu-erh.

All in all, it was a nice session. Nothing really out of the ordinary, but still a great find. I do not think that this particular example will benefit from further aging. Nonetheless, I will drink half of the brick now and try it again in the next year to see if my assumptions are correct.

Home Set Up

Tea should be simple. I typically brew gongfu except when I make a good English Breakfast. Zhuni pot is one that I dedicate to Chinese b...