Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cupping Two Awazon Organic Puer Cakes

A few days ago I did a comparison cupping of two sheng puer tea cakes that I purchased back in 2004 and 2005 respectively. They are from Awazon (阿佤山) and advertise "organic tea picked from high mountain wild tea trees." I purchased one tong (筒) (stack of seven) of both cakes. I sold most of them but kept a couple for aging. It's now been at least four years since I last tasted them.

2004 Cake

2004 Naked

2005 Cake

2005 Naked

Both cakes are plainly packaged with March production dates stamped in Chinese. I'm not sure what is meant by 2004's mention of "1000 kg." Perhaps that was how much of this tea was produced? That's possible, but it seems like a lot to me. The 2005 cake looks older, but that is because it has been opened, by myself, a few more times than the 2004, and it appears that the printer was low on red ink when its wrapper was stamped.

I brewed both teas in small, identical gaiwans with ~5 grams of dry leaf each. Freshly boiled, filtered, Seattle tap water was used. I poured 5 infusions before calling it quits, though undoubtedly these leaves held more layers of nice flavor.

These teas were quite different. In my opinion, 2004 was better. Its color was a shade darker with the tiniest hint of aged flavor. It smelled sweet like damp autumn leaves (which is the only type of autumn leaves we have over here in Seattle). There was a little bitterness in several infusions (user error, I believe) but in the end it finished smooth and left a gentle ripe plum flavor in my throat.

2004 Leaves and Liquor

2005 drank like a decent Yunnan green tea. It was more floral and had a hint of pine and smoke in the aroma. The broth lacked depth and body but tried to make up for this deficiency with subtle grass and honey notes. It was smooth but yielded little in the way of complexity or aftertaste.

2005 Leaves and Liquor

Both of these cakes struck me as "gutless" when compared to some of the higher quality sheng puer teas that I have been lucky enough to sample. These cakes are simply "OK" but because they didn't cost a lot of money, I'm perfectly happy to have them in my collection.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Urban Herbs #6 - Plantain

It's been too long since I steeped anything in my yard as part of my Urban Herbs series, and for some reason plantain keeps popping up on my radar lately as a healthy herbal tea to try. I first heard about infusing plantain leaves from a post on my friend Nicole's wonderful blog and since then I've seen a few other references to steeping this wild green. Today I went outside to forage some plantain to taste for the very first time.

Like most plants there are many different varieties of plantain but it's quite easy to find this type, plantago major, competing with the grass, moss and clover that makes up a typical Seattle lawn.

My Backyard Plantain:

Most of the references I've seen online for preparing plantain tea call for dried, chopped leaves. Instead, I chose to take ten fresh leaves, muddle them in a glass measuring cup, and then steep them for ten minutes with boiling water.

The Ten Leaves:

The Steeping:

The resulting liquor was a pale, watery, greenish-yellow color. It smelled like a green banana and edamame. The flavor was mild, grassy, and a tiny bit floral. It was astringent like a persimmon though not nearly as intense. Still, I could feel a "fuzzy buzzy" sensation on my lips and tongue. Not too bad... I'd call this experiment a success but next time I'll try drying and chopping the leaves before I brew them.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What's my puer cake trying to tell me?

Puer tea (普洱茶) often has lots of information printed in Chinese on its packaging. Many tea lovers can read Chinese, so this information is already right at their fingertips. I, on the other hand, cannot read Chinese. For the last 7 years, I have been a beginner-to-elementary level Mandarin student. Because of this, I am often curious about the Chinese text printed on my puer cakes and bricks.

I'm already pretty good at recognizing some of the more common words found on puer tea wrappers, such as: 雲南 (Yunnan), 生 (sheng), 熟 (shu), 野 (ye), 七子餅茶 (qizi bingcha) and 喬木 (qiaomu) and with the aid of babelcarp and puer.net, I'm also learning the characters for many puer factory names and specific growing regions.

One thing that has always intrigued me is the list printed on the back of so many mass-produced, factory cakes and bricks from the last decade.

The List

For years I've wondered if any of this information was relevant to me as a puer tea lover. One day, the curiosity became too intense, and so, with the help of my friend Dr. L. Chang, I translated it.

Here's what we came up with:

產品名称 - chǎn pǐn míng chēng - Product Name

產品原料 - chǎn pǐn yuánliào - Product Material

企业代碼 - qǐyè dàimǎ - Company Code

衛生許可證號 - wèishēng xǔkězhèng hào - Health Inspection Approval Number

生產許可證號 - shēngchǎn xǔkězhèng hào - Product Inspection Approval Number

產品執行標準 - chǎnpǐn zhíxíng biāozhǔn - Product Standardization Protocol

淨含量 - jìnghánliàng - Net Weight

生產日期 - shēngchǎn rìqī - date of manufacture

儲存條件 - chǔcún tiáojiàn - Storage Conditions
在符合儲存條件下適宜長期保存 = airy, cool, free of bad smells, no pollution

保質期 - bǎozhìqī - Shelf Life / Best By Date
在符合儲存條件下適宜長期保存 = Suitable for long term storage.

出品 - chūpǐn - Producer

地址 - dìzhǐ - Address

生產 - shēngchǎn - Production Location

地址 - dìzhǐ - Address

I've compared this list to many of the cakes and bricks in my puer collection and found it to be the same (or at least very similar) among all the ones with the list.

In the end, I've concluded that this list turns out to not be very important for me. It's all very interesting and great to see the production date, but most of the other information appears to target puer industry people. The front label usually contains more of the the information I'm excited to know about my puer tea.

Friday, May 11, 2012

2008 Wenshan Baozhong Roasting Experiment

Back in May of 2008 my little sister Nicole, her husband Justice, Justice's little sister, my friend David, his fiance Gwen and I all spent 8 awesome days together on a tea trek in Taiwan. During our trip, everyone purchased a good amount of fresh oolong to bring back home.

Last week, while spending some time in her sister-in-law's kitchen, Nicole discovered one unopened 300 gram bag of Wenshan Baozhong forgotten in a cupboard! Nicole and her sister-in-law were sad that it was never enjoyed and decided to send it to me for some comments on its current quality.

A few days later I held the neglected bag of tea in my own hands. The vacuum seal on the bag was broken and probably had been for years. The leaves themselves looked OK but they lacked aroma. I brewed a small amount in a gaiwan. It was flavorless and flat with only the tiniest hint of its original Baozhong fragrance. Worst of all was the aftertaste, which was bitter and harsh.

I decided to experiment with my Taiwanese electric basket-roaster (although my hopes were very low that the tea could be saved). I saved about an ounce of unroasted tea in a little tin and poured the rest (about 9.5 ounces) into the basket-roaster.

The basket-roaster (it has a lid) and the tea's original bag:

I baked the tea at Phoenix Tea for 2 hours at 100° C before stopping to mix gently. Towards the end of this period the store began to smell sweet. Then I raised the temperature to 130° C for 1 hour and mixed again. Finally I lowered the temperature back to 100° C for one more hour.

At this point the leaves (and the store) were smelling wonderful. The smell is hard to describe but it's a little bit like I was making candy and baking sugar cookies at the same time.

Unfortunately when I brewed the tea a few minutes later the flavor was still bad. It had a hint of warming roasty goodness but it was bland and the aftertaste was terrible. I decided to roast the tea longer the next morning.

The following morning I baked the tea for 1 hour at 100° C and then 2 hours at 130° C (mixing gently every hour). Once again the same heavenly aroma filled the air.

I estimated an equal pinch of leaf into two bowls and poured in freshly boiled spring water.

Roasted on the Left. Original on the Right.

Interestingly the Original tasted slightly better this morning. Most likely it benefited greatly from 24 hours spent outside of the bag it had been trapped in for 4 long years. It still lacked flavor but it yielded more floral aroma and had an improved aftertaste.

The Roasted tea was nuttier than it had been yesterday which for me was an improvement. Cinnabar, who joined me for this tasting but did not try it the day before, pointed out undesirable notes of cornflakes and straw. We both agreed that the tea was "not good" and had a weird aftertaste (sort of metallic tasting).

After the Roasted tea had cooled down I put it back inside its original bag, a step I now regret because I suspect the bag is partly to blame for the tea's bad aftertaste.

A week has now passed since this experiment began. Today I plan to throw away the original bag, roast the tea for a few more hours, and then store the tea in a special jar for a few weeks. After which I will write a follow up to this post.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Using a Second Clay Teapot as a Chahai

Tea lovers have been decanting their brew from one teapot to another for ages so this post offers nothing original. However, when it comes to gongfu style tea preparation, it often seems like I, and everyone I drink tea with, always uses a decanting pitcher (aka chahai, fairness cup, etc.) or we'll just pour the tea directly into our cups.

Lately I've been experimenting with using two clay teapots, one to brew and one to serve, while drinking Chinese tea.

In the cases where I already have two well-seasoned teapots that hold similar volumes of tea, this method has yielded some wonderful results. High quality clay teapots are always such a pleasure to use... so it makes sense that having two on your tea tray at the same time may "double your pleasure."

Some other possible benefits include: quicker seasoning of your clay teapots and the second teapot's lid can, if desired, be used to keep your tea much hotter than a typical decanter.

Please comment if you have any more information or personal experiences regarding this technique.