Pu’er tea harvest season taste test

For those interested, 1001plateaus and Bana Tea Company will be presenting a focused tea tasting on Pu’er at the Huntington Gardens, on Saturday, November 14, 2015 at 9:00AM.


There’s been a backlash recently about the fuss and puffery used to describe flavor profiles, so in going “totally layman,” I’m going to stick with these three phrases: Great, pretty OK, and no good.

Tasting, of course is a relative thing. Given several teas/coffee/wines to choose from, the goal is to look for characteristics that stand out from the others: least acidic, most creamy, etc. but it only makes sense compared to what else is at the table. In addition, flavors are subjective, so it’s best to focus on characteristics that don’t rely on flavors. In terms of Pu’er, the look of the brewed leaves, bitterness on the finish, the presence of gan (a returning sweetness in the mouth), viscosity of the tea, and how it feels in the mouth and throat are indicators of quality whether or not the tea has dried-plum or orchid flavors.

It’s common knowledge that harvest season greatly affects the quality of tea, but I have not found anyone who has actually done a harvest season taste test. It’s quite a feat to get real Pu’er from Yi Wu in the first place, so we were super happy to get three pucks of 2015 raw Pu’er from San He Chun, picked from old trees in the spring, summer, and fall.


The color difference is interesting. From left to right is spring, summer, and fall. Since these teas are all from 2015, the spring is actually the oldest, and yet the lightest in color.

Tasting the three teas initially blind, it was obvious which one was spring. It was clean, complex, and very thick. Out of the remaining two, one of them was like drinking a brick, bitter, dull, and funky smelling. This turned out to be summer. Summer is the time of the monsoon, and when it’s raining, trees are focused on growing (trunk, branches), and the minerals absorbed by the roots go toward that end. During the rainy season the tree is not interested in producing leaves, and those that are produced are weak in mineral content (flavor).

The third one, fall, was OK. There is no better word. It was slightly bitter, had a little flavor, but didn’t make me want to dump the cup out.

After this first brewing we had some plain water, and since this is Yi Wu Pu’er from old trees, there was a lot of gan, resulting in sweet, fabulous water, and honestly I’m not sure whether the gan came from all three teas or just the spring. (Next tasting!)

Then we brewed the teas a second time, for a lot longer than we should have, just to draw out some (if any) of the bad qualities. I tasted fall first, and it tasted better, pretty OK. Then I tasted the spring. If the fall was somehow elevated for the second brewing the spring was equally lifted if not more. The second it hit my mouth I could tell the difference in viscosity, and then came the various flavors. Viscosity = mineral content.

Finally I tried the summer again, and, instead of just tasting slightly over-brewed, like the others, the long brew created a bitter fur bomb that stuck in the front of my mouth and on my tongue, like eating an unripe persimmon, or that thin papery skin that surrounds a walnut. A perfect example of unwanted astringency in tea, however.

Like the age of the trees and the terroir, harvest season has a considerable effect of the price of Pu’er. Generally, the price of the fall picking is 2/3 of the cost of spring, and summer is half, but considering those fakers out there, it’s potentially an easy thing for vendors to sell a fall or summer Pu’er for spring prices.


There’s some “hint of wet dog on the nose” for the Scotch drinkers.

You are what you smell


Last year the porcelain bridge I’ve worn in my mouth since high school gave out, so I’ve been spending a lot of time at the dentist lately, preparing for some new teeth. As it turns out, I’ve also been spending a lot of time with my dentist.


He’s the guy that got us into roasting our own coffee beans, so in return we told him about Sean Thackrey wines. Now his new obsession is a gadget called the Coravin, which allows you to “access” a bottle of wine without removing the cork. A needle is inserted into the bottle (“cork strike”) and argon gas is pumped in and the wine comes out. When you pull the needle out, the cork reseals itself, and since argon is an inert gas, the wine will not be oxidized.


All this is theory, so Coravin’s founder, Greg Lambrecht, who’s more like a cool inventor than a sales person, invited a group of wine professionals plus my dentist, who invited me (we’re “fans” I suppose) to a blind tasting (plus a steak lunch at Morton’s). Classy!


We were early, so I got to chat with Greg about the company who produces his argon canisters (same company that provides Starbucks with helium. Go whippets!) and what he’s working on next: screw top wine bottles and champagne. He explained that when you force a gas and a liquid out the same hole you get flat champagne. But he’s very close to figuring out a solution. For those wines that use plastic corks he told me the secret was to always place the needle in the same hole (HA!), store the bottle standing up and it will keep for a month (argon is denser than air), or use *** to seal the hole in the cork. He actually made me promise not to divulge what *** was.


The tasting consisted of 5 glasses of white and 5 glasses of red (of the same wine). Some of the glasses were filled with bottles that were accessed exactly a year ago, and the others were filled with bottles opened that day. We were told not to look at our neighbor’s notes and not to speak. Some thirty people handling ten wine glasses each is actually a loud affair. Then there was a little bit of hubbub regarding how, exactly, we were all supposed to share the spitting buckets. This was soon addressed, and we got to tasting.

Both of the wines that were served were natural, which meant some variation from bottle to bottle was to be expected. Though last year’s wine may taste a little different, the point is that it’s not something anyone would be embarrassed to serve. The Coravin works incredibly well.

Apparently the percentage of people that can taste the difference is 5%, and apparently I fall within that 5%. I’ve got “Smell-o-vision.” I picked the whites correctly and got all the reds except for one. Bastard! I suppose I’ve had a lot of practice. I live with a dog that can vapor wake and I’ve spent a lot of hours tasting tea. Wine is harder than tea. Your palette gets very tired. I did spit most of the wine out, but I felt I had to drink a little from each glass. By the time I got to the reds, I was ready for lunch. Lunch was a three-course affair with some rare wines thrown in for fun, but it wasn’t lunchtime yet.

I went around the room smelling things. I smelled the leatherette sleeve for the wine bottle that comes with the system. It’s supposed to keep you safe if the bottle you are accessing is one of the 1-in-50,000 bottles that break when the needle goes in. I smelled the paper doowahs that went around the base of each glass to assign it a number. I smelled someone’s bad breath, which my dentist later confirmed was the sign of “perio.” I smelled the soap from the bathroom on the ladies that walked by. This was way too much fun for an event that was free.

I asked Greg how one was supposed to get the wine from a very old bottle, and he gave a demonstration of how to get at the bottle sideways while keeping the sediment untouched. He added that when the bottle gets low, like around 5 ounces, you should do yourself a favor and just pull the cork out and drink the damn thing. Now that’s some no-nonsense advice.






Some people like to match their bike outfits to their lipstick, I prefer to match my handlebar tape to my dogs.

In the entirety of the Internet there appears to be only one video showing how to harlequin wrap your bars using two colors:

In the entirely of the Internet there are a bunch of guys that say “but how do I wrap with four colors?” and one dude that says “If you can wrap with two, you can wrap with four. Figure it out.”


First step is to order all the cool colors of Newbaum’s tape.

Second step is to try the two color wrap.


Third step is to go all in.


There is a lot of WTF at the beginning. A LOT.


But I’ve braided hair. I’ve braided dog tug toys. I’m a master.


Once you figure out how to start, it gets easier, but then you want to kill yourself when you try to make the two sides even. Drinking an alcoholic beverage helps, but only if the brand fits into your color scheme.




Maybe if I repeat this process I’ll make a video?

Thai food in an LA strip mall on a Saturday Night


You know the kind of strip mall I’m talking about, the corner lot with two exits/entrances, where more backwards driving is done than forwards, with pockets of weird parking spaces that make no sense, like the one we parked in, where upon finishing our dinner we saw that we were blocked by not one but two cars.

The first car was owned by a fellow Thai crispy pork aficionado, and the other figured that after that car got moved, we could squeeze by, so the three guys inside this second car stay put, giving us a thumbs up as we pass.

Within minutes these three guys become either loiterers, carriers of open containers of alcohol, or skateboarders in public, as the LAPD shows up in an unmarked black Dodge Charger and issues them a ticket.

A very fancy BMW with a driver who is either a valet or an Armenian comes roaring into the parking lot. Turns out it’s the latter. He gets out, unwraps a new auto detailing clay bar and immediately starts to dress his tires. He finishes one tire and walks over to talk to the cops. He leaves the bar wrapper on the ground.

David tells Bill and I about when he was sixteen and worked at a Haagen Dazs and how a co-worker’s dad would wax his Jaguar (the one with two fuel tanks) in the parking lot as he waited for his son to get off work. Bill asks how many days a week the kid had a shift. David says 3 or 4. Bill says that the dad probably had a serious build up of wax.

The fancy BMW exits the parking lot, turns right, screeches to a halt, backs into the mini mall and then exits again, turning left. After ten minutes he comes back.

The BMW driver tells a couple, who are the only people on this planet wondering if their parking spot is legitimate, that it’s OK to park where they are, because “we’re closed.” “We” meaning his store, so presumably he’s the owner of the Armenian/Russian/Spanish deli we are standing in front of. The couple goes into the Thai restaurant. (This is a given, the only woman hanging out in the parking lot is me, and one of the cops). A fancy Mercedes drives up behind the BMW and the guys have a chat and a smoke and then leave again.

I peek into the deli, trying to see if he sells my favorite Bulgarian juice. The disco lights inside make it impossible to tell for sure but they look like they’re in there, sour cherry, apricot, black currant. YUM! And suddenly crazy Armenian man is my new best friend, and I am seriously hoping he comes back so I can ask him if he’ll sell me some juice off hours. Bill reminds me that it isn’t a good idea to watch Cassavetes’ movies one after the other.

There’s a moment when we try to figure out why the doughnut shop is called Windsor Donuts, since Windsor is a few blocks away, and that digresses to why the House of Windsor people in England don’t actually have last names.

We try to figure out what a movie is about from a poster hanging in the deli’s window. The text is in Armenian, but it’s got a graphic of Russia, France, and Armenia and the man is holding a hammer and sickle flag and smiling. Must be a comedy, says Bill. Another poster advertising a performance with “Bouzoukia style seating” gets all of us googling, and once you pull out the phone, you know it’s time to go home.


DWP rebate here we come

Our friend Andrew gave us a Kalanchoe to kick-off the plant portion of our landscaping project.


So off to Theodore Payne we went for the first part of our plant buying spree. Since it’s the summer, the selection is pretty limited, but we picked up some Marrow, Yarrow, Lupine, Sage, Buckwheat, Penny Royale, Fuchsia, Milkweed, Manzanita and a Catalina Cherry.



Next we scored free tickets to the Huntington Gardens and attended the Los Angeles Cactus and Succulent Society sale, filled with crazy plants and even crazier people.



That thing on the right with flowers that look like string beans is a Tylecodon Wallichi from South Africa. I went up to the guy who was selling it, and said “Can I ask you a question about this thing?” and he said “Why, look at your freckles!”

Other than that Wallichi, we stayed away from the exotics, especially the ones that were super expensive and looked like we could kill it in one stroke.


Plant buying is a little stressful (way more so than rock shopping), so we shugged off some extra weight and went on vacation for a week.



Which prepared us to move our bricks yet again from the backyard into the front so the landscape guy could use them. These bricks are from our old deck and we’ve hung on to them because they’re odd-shaped and handmade and we seem to enjoy moving bricks around. This is probably the fourth time we’ve moved them, roughly 400 of the buggers.


We chalked out the path for the bricks, dropped in the rest of the rocks, and set the plants in place. GULP.




A moment of WTF is that?


And here’s our completed project! Now we get to submit our photos to DWP and wait for the rebate to come. Notice the stack of bricks is gone. We used about half of them and had to move them into the backyard. Lucky for us our landscape guy and his two sons are so cool they helped us move them (and strong – they carried 9 or 10 bricks at a time). Maybe we’ll build a fire pit? BBQ?



A visit to Sean Thackrey


Famous people are not necessarily interesting people if you’ve only got a few minutes to chit chat, like really, wouldn’t most people, famous or not, just say, “is the chicken BBQ done yet?” or “do you think there’s onions in the guac?”

But we’ve got a short list, a very short list, of those we’d like to have those few minutes with, and Sean Thackrey is at the top, though technically David’s met him a long time ago. He used to work at the bookstore ST frequented, and ST has kindly remembered this fact over the years.


The drive to Bolinas on Highway 1 was a winding northern California classic, part fog, part sunshine, sheer cliffs overlooking a slightly angry ocean. We made a brief stop in Sausalito, which we made very brief, after designating it the Lake Como of the Bay Area, if you can judge a town merely by their galleries and penchant for regattas.

Our instructions for arriving at ST’s “barn.”
Park, let the dogs out, knock on the door.
The dogs were so happy to be face to face with the quintessential San Francisco guy: ST in his denim shirt and black turtleneck, work slacks and his marvelous Peter O’Toole look. San Francisco people from his generation (Alice Waters, etc.) are pretty much in a league of their own. Plus he’s missing more teeth than me, only his gaps are more uniformly distributed and wine-tinted. The dogs checked out a couple of his crushing tanks and his historical-plated pick-up truck, and got started munching on his weeds.


We asked ST whether he commuted to the city over Highway 1 when he worked there (he was an art dealer before he become a wine-maker). ST said yes, winding roads can lead to motion sickness, but how could he complain about his commute, since it was the centerpiece of other people’s vacations.

ST told us he now had a feral fox which he was feeding regularly, some mixture of duck fat, egg and dog food, confirming Stevie’s frantic suspicion that this whole damn place smelled like fox.


We got onto the topic of the Siberian experiment that bred foxes for tameness, in which the foxes got cuter after just a few generations, and ST said that was just blatantly impossible, and if it were possible, then it was purely heart attack material, that is, to have anything bred to be cuter than a fox.


When we went inside the barn Stevie got to lick ST’s pans and even chew on a discarded cherry pit, while MO vapor waked the fox food. DUCK FAT is her middle name afterall.

In the kitchen hung the shrine to Aquila:


When ST explained that the things at the bottom were Belgian glove molds, we hit on the idea of soldering two of them together to create menorahs for Belgian Jews, a niche market for sure, but certainly one which would buy our product.


The other 2/3 of the bottom floor of his barn held wine barrels, which we are thinking might be around 30,000 bottles of wine give or take a few thousand. On the shelf were bags of Vole repellant, but I’m not sure how many ounces of repellent works for one vole.

The assistant Tim came and pulled some wine of out of barrel to see if it was good enough to start bottling. We took our leave and told ST we were off to Marin Sun to get some burgers. We told him that we heard the tasting room at Marin Sun wasn’t working out, and asked why that was. ST said they were a good customer, and sell quite a bit of his wine, but they don’t have a dedicated person to actually stand there and talk (i.e. understand) his wine. In other words, he said, Marin Sun is a butcher that also cooks, they buy his wine but they are not a tasting room. Get it?


Thank god foxes don’t live long enough to develop cholesterol issues.

Tuo Cha gone awry


If you’ve ever visited a tea factory it will come as no surprise that there can be a lot of variation between bags, or batches of tea. In fact, if a tea farmer serves you tea, and you want to buy some of it, it’s best if you buy from that bag of tea they are holding in their hands. Don’t let them scurry it away into the back, and don’t believe them when they say, “there’s plenty more where that came from.”

Since tea is an organic product, there’s always the chance that over time it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. For Pu’er (and especially raw Pu’er), since it’s stored and aged, there’s years of opportunity for something to go wrong. In addition, Pu’er is sun-dried, which doesn’t quite halt all the oxidation, so over the years it’s still alive, slowly changing and reacting to its environment.

Recently we were able to compare a Menghai 1996 Tuo Cha that someone described as “something wrong, slightly moldy, or else my palette has gone completely off its rocker” with its respectable batch mate.

It was almost too easy. The compression of the “bad” tea was very loose. It crumbled when we went to break it apart. The odor was fine (no mold), and the wet leaves smelled slightly weaker than our sample, but the color of the rinse tells us this tuo cha ran with the wrong crowd.


The amber color that should be there for a raw Pu’er from 1996 was more of a watered down yellow. It was very clear, which is good, but the color was that of a younger tea. But even younger teas have some kind of flavor, and this tea had no flavor, just a sharp, bitter aftertaste. I am not throwing around the word “bitter” carelessly. I was actually surprised to taste real bitterness in the tea, as opposed to astringency, or a puckering sensation, or other subtle tastes similar to bitter but more complex. Bitter is actually an uncommon taste to have on its own. Sometimes it’s paired with sourness (grapefruit pith) or sweetness (licorice root) but pure bitterness for bitter’s sake is something very special indeed.


I doubt that the tea was improperly stored, or that anything could have been done to the tea over the years to save it. Sometimes you just lose one.


This drought


So I’ve never really liked grass. It stains your hands and your pants. It’s never as comfortable as it looks. It goes yellow and brown for no reason. A green, well-kept lawn is supposed to be a symbol of assimilation, class and suburban sameness, but a well-kept lawn which is mowed only up to the property line merely tells you something about what it means to have neighbors.
We tried to kill our lawn several months ago by not watering it. But apparently the type of grass that’s growing in our yard will turn green again as soon as it’s watered. So what does Los Angeles weather do in June during a drought? It rains.


After getting approved by the DWP Turf Removal Program the first thing we did was to officially kill the lawn and get paid for it. Very exciting.


Rock shopping came next. And rock shopping is super fun.
With help from our friend, the very rock-experienced Robin, we scouted out good rocks (Sidney Quartz) by doing quality butt testing, only to be told those rocks were sold.


So we turned our attention to the bacon rocks (Grand Canyon White Onyx), in search of the fatty layer that is a national treasure in China.


This particular bacon rock is from the Qing Dynasty (on display at the National Palace Museum in Taiwan) and when Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalists fled China for Taiwan this rock (as well as a ton of other good stuff and lots of gold. LOTS) was probably in General Chiang’s back pocket. Which tells you one, how coveted these rocks are, and two, how something that great got off the mainland.

(I have seen this rock in person but have no memory of how large it is. Otherwise I’d be able to tell you something about the size of General Chiang’s back pocket.)


Of course the best bacon rocks are in the middle to bottom of the pile. The people at the store look at you real funny when you ask if you can have the one at the bottom. We compromised by buying all four of the rocks that were blocking the way above the one I really wanted.


Up next, getting the plants.

Inspections of the highest order/odor. Hi Desert Landscape in the shape of a parallelogram.

Let me tell you about what’s wrong with Vanessa Place

Calling Vanessa Place a racist is wrong because it’s not enough. It’s not getting at the root of the problem. She’s using race to call attention to herself, so calling her a racist must tickle her to no end.

She’s definitely a certain type of racist, but mostly she’s a grossly egotistical patronizer, yeah, and a bad artist. But she comes from a whole line of very well paid and respected patronizers, but because she’s not a guy she has to use the next thing down on the totem pole from gender, and that’s race.

At first I was simply baffled by all the backlash against her. Not baffled like I didn’t get it, or that I didn’t think the tweets were racist. They were simply appropriated quotes from a racist book. Not Vanessa Place’s voice. OK. Appropriation is sort of the flavor of the month. But then I realized that all these people going after her for racial insensitivity are falling into the trap she has set. If Vanessa Place didn’t have race to be patronizing about she’d find something else. But she knows that race will get everyone riled up and get her a ton of attention but the anger and the criticism is misdirected.

She’s the white person telling everyone GWTW is a racist text. Well no duh, it was written in a racist period of our country, by a white woman living in the racist south. Do we need yet another white woman to tell us? Do we need an artist from Iceland highlighting the absence of a mosque in the historic center of Venice, Italy? Do we need another all-male panel discussing how women can make it in Silicon Valley? Do we need a nearly all-male Senate or Supreme Court writing legislation on women’s reproductive rights and who can control their bodies?

If other issues, say child labor, food stamps, or bone-shaped flea medication tablets were as hot as the issue of race, Vanessa Place would be telling women this, telling children that, telling animals this and that. That’s what patronizers do. So it’s not stopping the real problem if you allow her to bring the hammer of race down on everything.
Race gives her something to hide behind, something to shield her.
Calling her a racist allows other patronizers to slide by, to get ahead even, to feel justified in continuing to say “So let me tell you about how you feel being on your period, your situation of poverty, your sense of smell, etc.”

So why is getting all wrapped up in the race card so bad?
Because it allows people to bash on her while keeping their conscience clean. Everyone who signed the AWP petition, and everyone bashing Vanessa Place on social media can very proudly distance themselves from the race bit (hopefully). They can say they will never and never have and have never wanted to do something as grossly gross and profoundly awful as the RACIST Gone With the Wind tweets and accompanying image. They can be proud thumbs-uppers and wield their twitter stars and Instagram hearts all over the place. But if the crime Vanessa Place can be accused of is being patronizing under the guise of sheer egotism, from the position of white privilege, then are so many of these AWP petition signers still so innocent? And if you take the white part out, can they say they have never patronized from the point of gender, class or social privilege? Mansplainers? Hear me?



Duck breast in my jersey pocket


Last week while riding down Topanga Canyon I got my first flat as an adult. Technically it was my second flat, as the first one happened in my garage overnight, so let’s count this as my first puncture acquired in public.

The people I were riding with had already gone down the hill, because who wants to linger on Topanga Canyon? It’s quite possibly the dumbest downhill stretch in Los Angeles. The grade is between -3 to -8 and you have to pedal super hard to keep the headwind from blowing you into a complete standstill.


Of course the nail went into the back wheel but I was more worried about the CO2 cartridge failing than figuring out how to get the wheel back on. I had heard so many stories of cartridges failing, and I only had one, and I’d rather call Uber than ask anyone to ride all the way back up the f**king mountain with a little extra CO2.

Needless to say I successfully fixed my flat, and have been trying to figure out the best way to carry my beautiful little bicycle pump in addition to my one cartridge.

I can’t put the pump on my bike because my bike is so small there just isn’t any more room, and I’m not going to be one of those people who figure “someone’s bound to have a spare tire” (or have 5 bucks to buy me a coffee) so jersey pockets have been on my mind.


One of my jerseys has a third, tall pocket for a pump, but many jerseys for women only have two short pockets, although some brands provide us with little secret secret areas that are sewn in weird triangular shapes, and nothing normal, as in keys, tampons, credit cards, phone, can fit into them, but someone thinks we women like them.

What I do know is that a Muscovy duck breast is shaped perfectly to fit into a jersey pocket. Yesterday after a great up & down tour of Griffith Park, Elysian Park, and Echo Park, we stopped in at McCalls, who packed us up a bag of ice with our duck and away we went, ice water dripping down our back and leg.


Marinate this jersey-pocket sized piece of meat in soy sauce, sesame oil, and ginger, sear it with Sichuan peppercorns and salt, and then smoke it with lapsang souchong tea, rice, and brown sugar and I’ll do that ride any day of the week, even double-flatted.