If you own pu’er tea, being stuck in a pandemic for over a year has its benefits, unless you were so stuck that you drank your entire stash. Your tea is now one year older, wiser, and worth that much more. What’s even better is having the house termite tented during the pandemic, forcing you to get out of the house, where our humble room at the Sofitel was upgraded to the penthouse suite and we ordered club sandwiches from Norm’s via smoke signal.
I decided to remove the green coffees and teas from the property for safe storage, resulting in a much needed inventory check, in which I found only five little bags of mystery tea, and dug up a few treasures that had been silently aging and were now ready to shine, just in time for Linda and I to resume our epic tea tastings in person.
We started with something super fresh, a green tea called taiping houkui which I have never had before. The leaves are gorgeous, they have the imprint of the mesh fabric that they were pressed and rolled against. It tasted like an herbal tea without the herb flavor, just delicious and super thick without a hint of harshness. I thought the viscosity of the water was due to the silver kettle, so we tried a lower grade taiping houkui which tasted surprisingly bland and gritty and flat.
Next we drank a raw pu’er from a single tree that Linda had “discovered” during her own inventory taking process. We had loved this tea after trying it right after it had been picked, in 2018, so we were happy to assess its incredible three year old development.
Finally we got to my army green metal box squirreled away since 2007. It’s a commemorative pu’er made for the 80th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army.
There’s one brick of ripe and one brick of raw. A friend of ours has an uncle who’s a general in the army and neither of them wanted it. With teas like this it’s impossible without brewing it to know whether the taste will live up to the quality of the packaging, but when you can smell the aroma from a few feet away and the taste is close to honey in consistency, complex and spicy and quite possibly the best ripe pu’er you have ever had, you can thank the PLA for something other than the warm jackets that certain hotels in the mountains of China offer you when they drag you up at sunrise to see the fog.
We ended up just brewing this tea for the rest of the afternoon, losing count after twenty or thirty steepings. That’s how it goes sometimes.
This week in the world of “Tea vs. coffee” debates I know for sure if some dude does a rookie move at the Velodrome and crashes into you, and you break your wrist, it’s far easier to make an espresso than to brew tea.
Obviously it’s easiest to just have someone brew tea for you, so head’s up on two upcoming tea tastings with 1001 Plateaus and Bana Tea Company at the Huntington Gardens.
– Saturday, September 15, 2018 at 9:00 AM – “Tea Tasting: The Basics.” We will discuss brewing methods, factors that can affect the overall quality of one’s cup, and storage, as we taste rare and high-end teas from the six major categories.
– Saturday, October 20, 2018 at 9:00 AM – “Tea Tasting: Subtlety, Complexity and Beyond.” a workshop that is focused solely on tasting: We will taste specific flavor profiles of the major types of tea and then examine the often wild variations within each category. (Tickets go on sale one month prior).
Linda and I planned to get together and figure out what to do for our “Tea basics” tasting but didn’t quite get there. It was hot, it’s been hot, and the Thai place offered us free mango and sticky rice to go with our three other dishes, so we ate all our sticky rice and didn’t worry about the basics.
We started with three raw teas from Mengsong.
We tried two spring teas, a 2018 spring made from 100 year old trees from Vesper Chan, another 2018 spring made from old trees by our friend Xiao Cao, and Xiao Cao’s 2017 fall harvest, same farm. Xiao Cao’s spring tea is named after Hunter, Linda’s new grandson so you don’t have to finish reading this in order to know which tasted the best out of the three.
Xiao Cao’s Mengsong Fall tasted quieter, softer than his spring tea but with the same smoothness and detail, like slightly muting the tone of a color photograph. Both of Xiao Cao’s teas were thicker than the tea made from 100 year old trees, a great way to understand how 100 years is a spring chicken as far as pu’er trees go.
I get a lot of comments as to how tea is confusing: how some wild tea trees used to be farmed many years ago, or how “wild” depends on which animal has or has not pooped on its roots, or how does something like the half-raw/half-ripe get explained.
One tip I’ll always stand by is you should always brew tea using spring water from the same area that the tea was grown in. At least it makes agricultural sense even if it’s not practical. Maybe the next best thing is to use the local spring water to ferment your ripe pu’er, which is what makes Vesper Chan’s 2018 Enchantment of Ancient Trees so amazing. At first it tasted like a crazy candy bar because of the gan from the earlier teas, which caused more confusion for a minute.
It had a strong raw cocoa bean taste, and no deep earthy tones, which tends to be one-dimensional and boring in most ripe teas. It was also super thick and bold, and didn’t taste like a new tea. Because, just to add to the confusion, this tea is a 2018, but it was made in 2015. What was it doing for three years? Hanging out in a controlled environment.
We compared this young tea with the enormo-brick (a hefty one-pounder) from 2010 called Chang-An which was probably made by the same person (Vesper Chan’s ripe pu’er dude).
It had a similar cocoa bean flavor, no earthiness, and hint of something tangy like dried currant. Eight years (plus/minus three) has given it a lot more flavor and richness so we encouraged the Enchantment of Ancient Trees to do some additional hanging out. Note: no way you can break off a piece of that brick with one hand.
What happens when you schedule a tea tasting on the day the temperature climbs to 117? You start out with a plan, two wild raw pu’ers and some dim sum take out, and end up meandering into GABA oolong, charcoal roasted Tieguanyin, and green tea from Santa Barbara.
Dim sum dishes usually come in threes, so tea tasting in threes (Linda and I were joined by our friend J.D.) is perfect, as it ensures no one feels bad for eating that extra egg tart.
First on our list was two wild teas from Hojo. If you don’t know Hojo, be prepared for incredible teas laced with intense agricultural knowledge. We tasted his 2018 wild raw pu’er from Da Xue Shan, which smells fruity and sweet, and looks nothing like a traditional puck of pu’er.
Hojo thinks the flavor of wild tea tends to be milder because it’s grown in a lot of shade. To bump up the flavor he lets these leaves wither overnight before pan-frying, which oxidizes the tea slightly, and produces awesome color variations.
His definition of “wild” tea is pretty severe, if there are trees growing near paths where cattle may pass by and take a poop, they don’t count as wild, due to the fertilization, which he says will diminish the long-lasting aftertaste of real wild tea. He doesn’t say whether the same applies to wild animals cruising by, but this tea tastes green and fresh, has absolutely no bitterness, with a sugary aftertaste that’s lasting as long as this heat wave.
We drank it with a 2005 wild pu’er (exact origin and animal poop percentage of fertilization unknown, it somehow ended up in our hands) that tasted smooth and brown, full of burnt caramel and marshmallow.
Next we tried Hojo’s wild white tea from Da Xue Shan, made from the same leaves as the pu’er. And yes, it’s really this vivid in person.
This tea was withered for several days but instead of piling the leaves on top of each other like many Fujian white tea producers, Hojo gives his white tea a lot of space. The taste is thick, and lemony, like a sour apple. From what I can gather, Hojo prefers teas on the fruitier side in terms of flavor, so it’s fun to think about someone’s specific personality as you taste their teas.
On that note, J.D. brought some 2003 silver bud white pu’er (I know, the labeling is confusing) also from Da Xue Shan but from David Hoffman’s Phoenix collection. You can’t talk about personality without bringing up David Hoffman, one of the most eccentric and famous of the old guards of tea that are slowing dying off. He’s got a fun shop (and rumored to have a pu’er cave) in Marin County, and the last time I visited he let me sit and brew all afternoon. Supposedly I’ve been promised a tour of his home the next time I visit, before the pesky building inspectors force him to tear it down.
Also dying a slow death is the technique of charcoal roasting Tieguanyin. Our friend Max is writing an article on it (URL to come when it’s published) and we were able to get some Drunken Imperial Concubine from Master Chan. His roaster dude is 70 years old and when he’s gone that will be that. The leaves are roasted for about 22 hours in total, but not continuously, as the roaster (especially if you’re 70) needs to sleep. To keep the pit hot, the ashes of a parasol tree (梧桐樹) are spread over the coals. You can taste a little ashiness in the tea, on top of the roasted coconut and buttery flavors, quite different from the greener, lightly-roasted and more popular tieguanyins.
We got tired of lamenting old tea techniques so we moved on to something high tech and trendy: GABA Taiwanese oolong from Te Company. GABA stands for Gamma-Aminobutyric acid, and supposedly it’s responsible for reducing neuronal excitability, or lowering your blood pressure, or mellowing you out. You can, of course buy GABA as a supplement. The process of GABA tea was invented by the Japanese in the 80’s, where trees are shaded a few weeks before harvest (like gyokuro) in order to produce an excess of glutamic acid, which the leaves already have quite a bit of. When the tea is oxidizing, the oxygen is replaced by nitrogen (technically it’s nitrogized?), which converts the glutamic acid to GABA. This is all fine and dandy, only there’s evidence that taking GABA orally doesn’t increase GABA levels in your brain, because the substance is not able to pass the blood-brain barrier in order to enter your central nervous system.
Though the taste is a little un-tea like, more like a sweet potato leaf tisane, it’s fun to believe in blood-brain barrier penetration, when it’s 117 degrees out anything that promises to reduce your stress level is going to do exactly what it claims to do.
J.D. had with him some Lu An from 1999 (also from David Hoffman) and we thought it would be interesting to try it along side some Lu An Gua Pian, which I’ve never tasted. Lu An is the name of the area, and Gua Pian means melon/pumpkin seed, which the wet leaves definitely smell like, along with nori, and salt. There’s no pumpkin seed taste in the tea, which may mean that the tea isn’t very good, or that it’s supposed to just look like pumpkin seeds. The aged Lu An, however, had some good pumpkin seed flavor, but was a little harsh around the edges.
Lu An Gua Pian is the most complicated green tea to make. Instead of the bud set, the second leaf grown on the branch is plucked, along with a little piece of twig to make sure the leaf doesn’t tear, removed later by hand. After firing over different pans that are set to different temperatures, and a special shaping technique that involves a broom, the tea undergoes a set of one-minute on/off intervals over a charcoal fire (like VO2 max training).
We ended the day with tea from trees grown in Santa Barbara. I don’t know anything about this tea, but the farmers sell their blueberries at the farmer’s market and I’m happy to try any tea made in the US. Their website says they have 300 tea trees, from which they make white tea, but the sticker on the package says it’s green tea. That’s good because when we brewed it, it sure looked and tasted like a white tea.
Heatwave tidbit: Lu An Gua Pian tea was used during the Ming dynasty to prevent sunstroke. No reason it won’t have the same benefits today. Alternatively, you can always cool down with a chicken soup popsicle.
Getting work done on the house is nuts. Not only do you need to like the people you hire, philosophically, you also need to like them physically, as they are in your house everyday.
And shit is expensive. But not everything costs money. Sometimes you get roped into doing more. Sometimes deals just come your way.
Several years ago one of our neighbors was having some concrete work done and he figured if he got other people to hire them as well, he’d get a deal. We let the guys pour us a new set of front steps, and they offered us a steep discount if we did something else.
OK, we said, why don’t you take away our concrete deck, which was already in pieces, and tended to collect stagnant water. So the Samoan concrete guys broke the deck into more manageable-for-them sized pieces, drank two cases of Hawaiian Punch, and drove the deck away. We were left with a large dirt mound (and 24 empty cans), which was all fine until it started to rain, and the backyard turned into what the dogs called the “great epic most fun thing.”
We called up a contractor whom we met originally when we bought the house. Before the housing bubble burst he had run his own construction company. Now he taught Kundalini yoga. His prices had come down by a lot. He was also into tea. We served him and his worker (who only drank iced tea) all sorts of Chinese teas as they built our deck, using a discontinued Trex color that was 50% off at the builder’s supply. During one afternoon tea our contractor mentioned something about needing to see the dentist. His truck needed work too, as it was leaking oil all over our driveway, so we asked him to put up yoga ropes in the garage which we made sure he hung from first to test the engineering.
More recently, we decided we needed a new kitchen counter. The grout in the kitchen was chipping and gross, and I had gotten tired of photoshopping out the brown bits from my Instagram pictures. But a new kitchen counter leads to craziness. Do you also get new cabinets and sink and faucets and drawer pulls and shelf liners and lighting fixtures and flooring?
We decided to list out the real mod cons.
1. Let’s plumb the espresso machine so we don’t have to constantly dump the bucket we currently use in place of a real drain.
That’s it. End of list. Everything else is, as they say, Russian chicken feed.
We scored LED lights from a guy we know from the Velodrome who sells them wholesale. Then he turned out to be a Trumpian. He, the Trumpian, thinks he’s getting an invite to “see the lights,” but I stick to my “you gotta like them philosophically and physically” mantra.
That seemed easy enough, but then we had to go through the process of hiring a cabinet maker who flaked for 6 months and then took another 2 months to officially flake. Meanwhile we entered our fireplace design era, and it turned out that the guys who set our tiles do a lot of general construction work, especially kitchens and bathrooms. Yay!
Then came the hard part. Turning off the espresso machine felt like unplugging from life support. We embraced the nail gun. We washed dishes in the bathroom sink. We MOVED THE CAT FOOD BOWL. We ate one tray of cold baked ziti a week.
We returned the crappy Heath tile samples under cover of night via bicycle rather than face that saleswoman again.
We got to bring out some old friends and wire them up.
Incidentally, the contractors LOVED our deck. It became their giant work space.
This is what we’ve been living with all these years.
Our counter guy is a Russian Jew from Belarus who has great recommendations on where to get real Tel Aviv falafels, where the people can be “slightly rude.” He’s a Stalinist at heart and a big Viktor Tsoi fan. He thinks an espresso offers clarity. He only takes his espresso when the job is about to be glued in.
It’s all concentration when he’s working and in true stone mason fashion makes sure to measure twice. He told us his definition of “professional” meant that you could do what you do without really paying attention and it still comes out fabulous. He said he didn’t really become a professional until a few years ago. In the end he used some tight connections to score us a small piece of Calacatta marble that is so silky and luscious it feels like even I could carve Persephone’s soft butt out of it.
But maybe I’ll just make pastries on it, and get a soft butt that way.
The final plumbing.
Sometimes you’re the hammer, and sometimes you’re the nail.
Since I started tooting around on my bike, I’ve noticed an odd pain on the outside of my wrists. It’s sensitive to the touch, and annoying when trying to open jars. My latest theory is that my hands are too small for the average distance between handle bars and brakes, and it’s causing me to twist my wrists and put pressure on some nerve that doesn’t like to have pressure put on it.
In the biking world as anywhere there are shim-eisters that will sell you all sorts of fixes and magic pills for your bike-related woes. To be sure your Bike Fitter is the real thing you have to Face Time with him over a chunk of caramel. Then when he says use a shim, you got to use a shim for everything.
In our last trip to Yunnan we asked our teamaster Vesper Chan to make us some Tuo Cha that does not suck. He came through, and for a blustery Sunday afternoon there’s nothing better than a mini tuo cha taste test.
We haven’t priced our mini tuo’s yet, but we were in the neighborhood so we picked up a tin of Peet’s Ancient Trees Organic Pu’erh tea. The free cup of coffee doesn’t hurt.
At first I took issue with the back of the tin in the form of brewing instructions:
I’m averse to the ratio (8 grams to 12-16 ounces or water) as well as the steeping for 4-5 minutes. Seems watery and sludgy at the same time, but as a general rule i try to follow the instructions on the package at least once, just not today.
Today the test is 5 grams in a gaiwan (roughly 3 ounces water)
Peet’s sells theirs in 8 grams, and our comes in 5 so i had to whack off a little bit for a fair test.
For those that are interested in using the wrapper to draw on, the Peet’s size is larger and has a noticeable texture.
Our tuo cha was a little floral, a little red date flavor, a little thick, and very clean. Smell and taste wise, the Peet’s is exactly like Melba Toast, or some dry rye cracker. This toastiness is perhaps what people like about it, but it doesn’t seem like Pu’er to me. After four brewings it started tasting very watery. This is where i take issue with the front of the tin:
There’s no way in hell this tea is made from anything close to ancient tea trees. No viscosity, no brewing stamina, no age. I’ve a special place in my heart for Peet’s coffee that i will always defend, no matter how damn dark they like to roast their beans, but please, don’t say it’s ancient tea trees when it’s modern melba toast.
The process of making tuo cha is pretty rough on the leaves, but just for comparison, here’s ours.
“The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.”
In the spirit of Emerson’s essay on gifting I struck a deal with the pups. If I got to order a box of chocolates from Dude, Sweet, I’d get enough insulation material to make them thermo-nuclear crate blankets. But that would have to be a giganto box, I said, and they said, we love the UPS guy, go for it.
I wanted to use two old pillowcases that got accidentally melted in the dryer (fleece vs. heat = craft project) but the thermo material wasn’t wide enough so I cut up the little pockets that held the ice packs to fill up the gap.
“Some violence, I think, is done, some degradation borne, when I rejoice or grieve at a gift. I am sorry when my independence is invaded, or when a gift comes from such as do not know my spirit.”
so a clear case of how to “go to mat.” thinking of all that chocolate gives Stevie a real flat head.
At some point during the day, when you’ve simply had too many cherries (yes, this really is the best coast), and way too much coffee, it’s time to take a trip into the meta-meta tunnel, which means screen sharing with yourself.
And it gets cooler. You can take a screen shot of your shared screens taking a screenshot with your shared screen!
We’ve had some good roasts with our buddy the Behmor, but this morning we pushed our luck too far. We tried a pound of Sweet Maria’s Satpura Fold on P4 and it barely made it to first crack. While this makes for a very sad batch—tight fisted pebbles actually, clinging to their chaff the way CEOs are with their IT dollars—I could hear the worms in the compost cheering “More for us! More for us!”
Not so fast little red crawlers, it’s spring time, which means the strawberries are booming, but the slugs are having their way with them before they get a chance to turn red. Turns out the Internet says coffee grounds pass through the slug’s slime barrier and they die of nervous exhaustion!! c-c-c-coffeeeeeee!
Turns out the Internet also says coffee and caffeine have no effect whatsoever on slugs! So true the Internet is bunk for so many things.
In any event I’m game to try, besides, there’s a chance I might be able to trap the largest, most dangerous garden pest, known in these parts as the moogoo.
Don’t ask me why it took so long for us to invite the roaster into the household, what with all our other forays into quality beverages, but we finally did it.
We opted for the microwave-sized Behmor 1600 recommended by none other than my fanatic dentist, and started up the machine as soon as we checked to make sure our fire extinguisher was still charged. And the first thing we did was under roast some beans. Whoops.
Though I take full responsibility for being a little too trigger happy on the “Cool” button I have to say my confusion for when to stop the heat was partly due to mediocre descriptions for when “second crack” (the critical point in a roasted bean’s life) is reached. Most people describe “first crack” as loud pops similar to popcorn (basically the bean heating up and emitting CO2, hello—it’s farting) and “second crack” is softer, more like rice crispies (apparently the cellular matrix of the bean itself is getting fractured). Whatever. I just know the cracks started happening and I couldn’t tell whether they were popcorn-y or rice crispy-y, and all I could see was the giant warning in the manual of “Do not go 10 seconds beyond second crack or you will have FIRE!” and little pieces of chaff were flying about and landing on the heating coils and bursting into flames, and one timer was ticking down to zero and another timer was ticking up to infinity and things were just a little chaotic.
And so. There’s nothing like the sour-bellied recoil from an under-roasted coffee and the fact that you have no other beans in the house to help get over that learning curve. All it took was a little practice.
I have to say though, that “second crack” sounds an awful more like sizzling meat than any kind of rice crispies, and, since sizzling meat is the most familiar sound to me second only to the coffee grinder, that would have been a much easier sound for me to spot. In addition, what’s happening to the beans between first and second crack is that the sugars are undergoing the coveted Maillard reaction, which has something to do with deprotonated amino groups, but without which we’d have no browning of meats, toasted brioche or fried onions!