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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Tea Plant Varietal for Pu-erh

A lot of tea from China is from the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis. Pu-erh is a bit of an exception. It is from a different tea plant varietal. But the real uniqueness of pu-erh comes from the way the leaves are processed more than from that tea plant varietal, which nevertheless still accounts for the difference in the flavors and aromas of pu-erh teas.


The species of plants from which tea is made is Camellia sinensis and the two main varieties are Camellia sinensis var. sinensis and Camellia sinensis var. assamica. The latter is the one used for pu-erh (post-oxidation fermented tea also called “bannacha” by some or even “dark tea”). (The name “camellia” is said to have come from Carolus Linnaeus in honor of Georg Jeoseph Kamel, a Moravian Jesuit who studied Asian plants. Kamel’s name in Latin was “Camellus”; he was a missionary in the Philippines and died in Manilla in 1706, most likely without ever seeing the plants named after him.) It is a broad-leafed plant variety also called da ye or da yi (like the brand name being used by the Menghai Tea Factory).

This broad-leafed Yunnan tea plant is used to produce most of the pu-erhs on the market (at least the ones that can officially be labeled as “pu-erh” by the Geographical Designation put into effect by the Chinese government). Some are classified as tall, small-leafed (yes, a bit contradictory), wild, and ancient. The major growing areas include: Baoshan, Dali, Dehong, Xishuangbanna, Lancang (Mekong) River Basin, and of course Puerh county. Da ye is botanically different from other tea varieties cultivated in China. The leaves are not only larger but rather leathery in texture, and they grow on a multi-trunked tree. You see photos around showing leaves off of the assamica varietal that are longer than a man’s hand. But the leaves used for most pu-erh teas are the bud or smaller stem tip leaves.

Wild (ancient?) tea trees photo found online.

The ancient, wild teas are the most rare, sought-after, and hard to make (in part because of the difficulty in locating the tea trees, getting to them since there are seldom good paved roads leading to them, and climbing them to harvest the leaves). This results in a lot of pu-erh teas being labeled as such even though they aren’t (one estimate is that only about 10% of “wild ancient pu-erhs” on the market really are). The tea tree age is also an issue. Claims of them being hundreds of years old are hard to substantiate. You have to rely on the trustworthiness of the vendor. And the question is how do they tell? Plus there is the issue coming to people’s attention more and more of these tea trees being over-harvested.

All good things to keep in mind when shopping for pu-erh teas.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Mutiple Infusions vs. Overinfusing Your Tea

A question came up the other day on our Facebook page: “If over steeping a tea can make the cup bitter, then why is the same not evidently also true for multiple steepings? Won’t the additional steepings be more bitter than the previous ones?” At the time, we gave a short and not very well thought out response but now want to take the time to post a longer and better response here. The question was a good one and really got the gears in our brain to creaking. Please bear in mind that we are not chemists and are presenting the information in as clear a way as possible for those of you who are also not chemists. Hopefully, the chemists out there will chime in wherever we go astray here.


The basic questions seems to be why a long infusion of a portion of tea leaves would yield one result and several short infusions of a portion of tea leaves would yield another. At least, that’s how we’re reading it here. Let’s take these one at a time.

Each infusion has more tannins in it.
Why a Long Infusion Turns Bitter

Let’s start by saying why tea is bitter in the first place and go from there. In a word, tannins. Camellia sinensis, the species of plants from which teas (not the herbal kind) are made. It has a naturally high tannin content. Tannins are released into the water during the infusion process. This is good due to the catechins and other flavonoids in the tannins. But too much can cause the tea flavor to turn overly tart or astringent.

A big mistake often made when infusing tea leaves is using too few leaves and infusing a longer time to get a stronger flavor, thus releasing too much of the tannins. Another mistake is using poor quality tea leaves or leaves from a cultivar that tends to be bitter (the assamica varietal comes to mind here, but the ones grown in India tend to be more bitter than those grown in Yunnan, Kenya, and elsewhere). Of course, the processing of those leaves can make a big difference in how they infuse. The Yunnan leaves are processed into máochá and then stored to ferment or they undergo wo dui (wet pile fermenting). The longer they are stored, the less likely they are to have any bitterness in the infusion. Some say 15 years is a minimum time.

Water quality can also contribute to bitterness, especially when infusing a tea for several minutes. Minerals and other elements in the water can make it “hard” and influence the tea flavor. Too few of these, though, makes the water “soft” and gives you a “flat” tasting tea. The right amount is needed. Plus, avoiding water that has chlorine or chloramine in it also helps.

All of these are factors that explain bitterness. But why a long infusion is more likely to be bitter than a number of shorter infusions is another matter. The longer you infuse the leaves, the more tannins are released from the leaves and go into the water. Too few will rob you of the benefits of drinking tea and/or give you a weak tea flavor. Too much will cause that bitterness. The longer you infuse, the more tannins are concentrated in the tea liquid.

Why Multiple Short Infusions Aren’t as Likely to Turn Bitter

A great thing about using a gaiwan or Yixing pot for infusing tea leaves is it encourages shorter infusion times. Just be sure to use a sufficient amount of tea leaves to get a good flavor from those short infusions (often less than a minute in duration). The main appeal of these shorter infusions is their tendency not to let tannins build up an overly intense concentration in the water. You may eventually experience some bitterness and can then decide whether to continue infusing the leaves or stop. Unlike one long infusion, therefore, you can get a number of good infusions before reaching that bitter stage.

Bottom Line

The key is concentration of tannins in the liquid. Shorter infusions don’t build up that concentration. Longer infusions do. And now you know.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Geographical Designation for Pu-erh Tea and Other Thoughts

It’s been a little over six years since the government in China approved and put into action Standard GB/T 22111-2008 which limited labeling teas as “pu-erh” (or pu’er, pu’erh, pu-er, etc.) to a certain geographical area (Yunnan Province, China). The hotly contested standard has seemingly done little to keep other teas from being sold as pu-erhs. Not surprising since the worldwide demand is increasing. Even if they wanted to, the tea farmers in Yunnan would very likely not be able to keep up with that demand.

The genuine article
The Standard

The scope of the standard: “This standard stipulates the geographical indication product pu-erh scope of protection of geographical indication products, terms and definitions, types and grades, requirements, test methods, inspection rule and marks, packaging, transportation and storage.” Basically, just as for Darjeeling teas, the standard says only tea produced in Yunnan’s 639 towns in 11 prefectures and cities, including Pu'er and Dali, can be called pu-erh tea and that the tea can only be made from a large leaf variety of the plant growing in the defined area that is then processed using a specified technology. Other locations producing pu-erh like tea could no longer call it pu-erh, plus all pu-erh being sold after 30 June 2009 had to have a geographical indicator that is was from Yunnan Province.

Definitions

Even after six years the very definition of what pu-erh tea is still tends to be subject to debate. Plus, the terms “sheng” and “shu” have been added to the pu-erh lexicon as descriptors by aficionados who wanted to distinguish teas that were naturally fermented versus the ones that had undergone a “speeding up” of that process using the “wo dui” (渥堆) method. (Young sheng is usually 8 years old or less and old sheng is 15+ years old. Shu, or modern shu, means the wo dui tea.) There is even a debate online about the proper Romanization of the Chinese characters. The standard became “pu-erh” but is now being touted as odd in some way, even though it is fairly close to the way the characters are pronounced. (Just mentioning this here as a side issue. This spelling has been a standard Romanization for Mandarin since the early part of the 20th century as part of the Wade-Giles system.)

Sheng (raw, uncooked) pu-erh
According to Yunnan Province Standards for Puerh, DB53/103-2003, the raw materials come from “Yunnan big-leaf tea tree cultivars grown in certain regions of Yunnan. The leaf materials are sun-dried and processed with post-fermentation to become loose tea or compressed tea…” The processing probably includes both wo dui and natural fermentation during storage. The full definition leaves open the suggestion that young sheng is not true pu-erh and that aged sheng becomes shu after aging a certain number of indeterminate years (some say as few as eight and others a minimum of 15). So, perhaps a better definition needs to be sought. A new version of these standards was dated in 2006, including the proposed geographic designation, the terms “sheng” and “shu” more clearly defined, as well as defining young sheng as pu-erh. Phew! That’s better! And this definition became part of National Standards for Puerh, GB/T22111-2008.

Shu (ripe, cooked) pu-erh
Oddly, the definition most often used comes from Dayi Group, which states that, despite there being different characters for new sheng and new shu, they taste very similar after 10 to 15 years and so are not that different (a matter that is open to much debate but a reason that some want to call older sheng as “shu”). Their definition does not recommend renaming the teas, though, and therefore avoids two confusions: 1) how to label the teas at the time they are pressed, and 2) no need to relabel the cakes as the teas age, since sheng remains sheng no matter how long stored as does shu (unlike the other definitions that refer to aged sheng as shu).

Guangdong Conflict


About a year after Standard GB/T 22111-2008 went into effect, the tea farmers and producers in Guangdong Province, which borders Yunnan, started to voice objections. A speculative bubble in pu-erh had inflated prices above the cakes’ weight in gold (a similar action now ongoing with some Darjeeling teas) but had burst around the time the standard went into effect. Prices fell by about 85%, shattering the hopes of many in both provinces and sparking a battle over the standard (approved on 5 August 2008 by General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine). Plus, Guangdong producers were dealt the additional blow of being unable to sell their teas as pu-erhs.

Zhang Liming, secretary general of Guangdong Tea Procession Association, spoke out about the economic disaster this would cause in the province, comparing it to calling rice grown in one province by another name than rice grown in another province. Of course, this leaves out all of the work processing the tea leaves, processing that is not involved in the rice. But the point is clear. Is the tea processed in Yunnan really so unique that a line on a map means it has to have a special name? And if so, why claim “pu-erh”? I’m thinking it’s partly due to the town of Pu’er where the tea is said to have originated. Not sure that is sufficient justification, plus it is refuted in an academic paper by professor Ding Junzhi from South China Agricultural University, stating that Guangdong was one of the earliest places to process pu-erh tea. Zhang called on the China Tea Marketing Association and the Economic & Trade Commission of Guangdong Province to help overturn the standard.

Yang Shanxi, director of the Yunnan Tea Industry Office, sees nothing new in this protectionist move and assures that it is supposed to help consumers know they are buying and drinking authentic pu-erh tea. When prices were soaring, tea leaves from Fujian and Sichuan provinces or from nearby Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma) were made into cakes labeled as pu-erh. In 2005, things got more contentious when the Yunnan Tea Business Association publicly accused Guangdong tea producers of selling too much of what they called “counterfeit pu-erh.” And such geographic designations have been issued for other products, including the Pinggu big peach, Longjing tea, the Shaanxi apple and the Guanxi honey pomelo. Only tea produced in Xihu, Qiantang and Yuezhou of Zhejiang province can be called Longjing.

The Cultivar Confusion

A bit of confusion arises over the cultivars used for making pu-erh tea. They are Camellia sinensis variety assamica and are collectively called “large-leaf” by the trade in China. They have larger leaves and buds than most other cultivars grown in China. Some have been cross-cultivated with Camellia sinensis variety sinensis and are grown on farms for various teas.

The name “assamica” can be confusing, with people associating it with teas from the Assam state in northern India. About 150 years ago taxonomists named the varietal not knowing it has been around and cultivated in many parts of southwest China and northern Indo-China peninsula. They could even have been grown for millennia before that. The true issue, though, isn’t the name. It’s the claim that only leaves from tea plants grown in the Yunnan province can make authentic pu-erh tea. While terroir can certainly play a role in tea flavor, the processing of these leaves, especially their fermentation (whether natural or using wo dui), would seem to make even more of a difference. So, maybe Zhang Liming is right in her thinking.

Customers Win or Lose?

The bottom line for me, as both a vendor and pu-erh drinker, is pu-erh that satisfies both you and me. This standard seems to assure for the most part where the tea leaves are grown and processed, but also assures that a particular process is used and that the teas are properly stored. I’m not clear on who exactly confirms that this standard is met, but my sources always know that what they supply to me meets it. As far as I’m concerned, therefore, the customer wins.

Friday, September 19, 2014

How to Calculate the Real Price of Your Tea

So often we here how expensive fine teas are. This is equally often said by folks who are sipping on that ultra hot cuppa $5 coffee-ish substance from the mega chain store coffee shop. Yet, grand cru (great growth) teas are far more likely to break down to a much lower cost per cup than even the “bargain” bagged teas from the local grocery store. The key is how these teas are infused. Multiple steeps is the big factor here. The formula is pretty straightforward, as shown below, and maybe our way of calculating is a little more involved than the way others do it, but we wanted to take a number of things into account and even things out between the size of a typical steeping of these teas versus a typical cup of other teas. We’ve also put together a few samples for you of teas we carry, just to give you an idea of the difference.

The Formula

Many fine teas are sold by the gram versus ounces or pounds. So we calculated using grams and then did a column that gives you the cost if you had an 8-ounce cup of that fine tea (it is usually infused in smaller amounts).
  1. Price of unit (cake, etc.) divided by Grams per unit = Price per gram
  2. Ounces of water used per infusion times number of infusions per session = Total ounces of liquid tea
  3. Grams per unit (cake, etc.) divided by Grams of dry tea used per infusion session = total infusion sessions possible from unit of tea
  4. Price of unit divided by Number of sessions = Cost per session
  5. Cost per session divided by Total ounces = Cost per 8 oz. cup
  6. Other Costs (guesstimated 50 cents per cup for water, heat source such as electricity, gas, charcoal, plus labor, clean-up, etc.)
  7. Cost per 8 oz. cup + Other Costs = Total Cup Cost
A lot of folks, when doing cost comparisons, leave out #6, but you need to include something here since you are incurring those costs one way or another. For example, you may need to buy bottled water or use a water filter.

The Calculations

We pulled quite a few teas to give a good cross section. Row W is the most expensive tea and therefore has the highest per 8-ounce cup cost ($2.30). In some cases we pulled teas such as row AH that are sold in different size pouches to show how the per cup cost compares. In Row U, we compare three different grades of a Dancong oolong – the per cup cost is so little that you might as well go for the highest grade.

Click on image to enlarge

Compared to Popular Bagged Teas

We avoided the U.S. brands and compared with some of the top UK brands. They range from 52 to 60 cents per cup. As you can see on the chart above, a number of the fine teas come out to about the same cost. It would seem that those fine teas aren’t such an extravagance after all. Which leads to the question of why people settle for blended stuff in teabags. We like to think it’s just because they don’t know this. Hopefully, now they do.

Click on image to enlarge

We also realize that the teabags are presented as a time saver, but with some practice, you can steep up loose leaf tea just as quickly. And you can get a far superior cup of tea than at those coffee shops, not to mention saving a ton of money.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dissolvable Tea?

We wrote about the distinction between brewing, steeping, and infusing tea. Thinking that this issue had pretty much been addressed (ha ha! no such thing, apparently, in the world of tea), we then came across a tea that isn’t brewed, steeped, or infused. It’s dissolved! Yes, just add hot water and let the dry tea completely merge with the water. Magic … sorta!

The original dissolvable tea – Matcha Powder 1000 Mesh EU Organic-Certified

Matcha is a dissolvable tea. Actually, technically speaking it is a suspension where the molecules of the tea are dispersed rather evenly among the molecules of the water. In this state, you can drink both without experiencing any chalkiness or gritty residue.

http://www.myteadrop.com/tea-selections/
Dissolvable tea shapes
But we’re seeing other kinds of dissolvable (or should we call them suspendable?) teas out there, including one that looks like a calendar where every day of the year is made from a different tea (or flavored tea) and a newcomer where the tea leaves and ingredients are ground up and pressed into stars and other shapes (put one in a cup and pour hot water over it – the tea supposedly leaves no gritty residue).

As folks who strongly prefer to infuse their teas loose (unbagged and without an infuser of any kind), we approach the idea of dissolvable/suspendable tea (other than matcha) with a bit of healthy skepticism. We don’t appear to be alone in this. An online chat (that sadly devolved into a discussion about the definition of matcha which further devolved into petty name calling) included remarks such as that it sounded fishy unless they meant matcha, and that a particular brand was more like instant coffee and just as distasteful.

However, we have to stick with the idea that you all must choose your own way to enjoy tea. Plus life can get hectic, and you may need some way to have that occasional cup of dissolvable tea when you’re in-between meetings or classes or other events where your normal gongfu approach is a bit too much.

http://www.interiordesign2014.com/other-ideas/a-cup-of-tea-a-day-calendar/
Tea calendar
A better way to have that quick fix of tea, though, might be to make some up ahead and put it in a travel mug. The tea will stay at a reasonable temperature.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

How Your Customer Comments Help Us

You buy a product. You like it. You don’t like it. You don’t bother to tell the store manager or online vendor either way. We understand. Your life is busy. It can take time to post a comment on their site or Facebook page with your feedback. But your efforts can really help that store or vendor in serving you better and improving their line of products. And it can help us achieve our goal.


We want to be your “go to” for the finest teas from China and Taiwan (and a few from nearby areas like Darjeeling, India, and northern Thailand). The best way to do that is to hear from you. Good, bad, so-so, or whatever else you care to tell us. They all help. And your time and effort are greatly appreciated. Your feedback can help guide our decisions in what we select from our suppliers. No sense getting in more of a tea that many of you tell us is bitter tasting or unpleasant.

Another benefit to both you and us is the shared camaraderie of infusing and trying these teas, enjoying some (hopefully many) and not others (hopefully few), and then sharing your tasting notes with us. We don’t just sell these teas, we enjoy them, too! We try to take time to post some of our own tasting notes, too, on Facebook, this blog, and elsewhere. It helps us all when we share this type of information, especially since so many things can affect the flavor of your tea: water quality and temperature, steeping vessel (ceramic teapot, Yixing clay teapot, gaiwan, glass, etc.), ratio of tea leaves to water, infusion time, and even how the tea was stored.

With your help, we can also improve the infusion instructions on some of our teas and add instructions to others where they are lacking. So, we hope you will take a moment and let us know how your tea experience went. Thanks!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Storing Teas for Aging vs. Preservation

A lot of talk about aging various teas beside just pu-erhs has been popping up online recently. So, we wanted to take time to differentiate between just storing a tea to preserve it for later and storing a tea to age it.

http://www.jas-etea.com/aged-liu-an-black-tea-1999/

Storing Tea to Preserve It

A lot of information is available about storing teas to help them last. The goal is to keep the flavor about the same as when the tea was first processed. Air, odors, moisture, and light are all shut out. Plus the teas are kept in a cooler environment, sometimes even in a refrigerator or, under the right conditions, in the freezer. If done well, the tea can last months and even years. Considering the time, effort, and expense of growing, harvesting, and processing them, this seems very worthwhile.

Storing Tea to Age It

This seems to be increasingly common. The goal seems to be to modify the tea’s flavor through a process similar to what pu-erhs undergo. An example is in an article where the author discusses his experience with aged white teas in Fuding, China. The oldest were from 2006. He describes the flavors as unlike the faint ones from most white teas on the market (I’ve seen numerous comments from folks who say that white teas are tasteless) – the aged versions progressed to richer and more honey sweet flavors with fruity fragrances (he names dates, figs, and grapes) the older they were. Aged oolongs are also being marketed. The question remains as to whether they are made better by the aging or if they are just being preserved. One site says the tea master examines their tea every 2-3 years and possibly re-roasted if they contain excess moisture – this will help retain the tea’s flavor. However, after 3 years, the flavor changes are said to begin, mellowing noticeably, until at about 15 years they are considered mature. Another oolong expert (oolongs seem to be the type of tea used most for this non-puerh aging) emphasizes the flavor change while keeping the same mouthfeel or even increasing it slightly.

Proper Aging Techniques

The idea here is to keep the tea viable and not let it go stale during the aging process. The key is to start with a tea that still has good fragrance in the leaves and not too much moisture (if you want to age an oolong, experts recommend that you start with a roasted oolong with a strong mouthfeel – Baozhong, Dong Ding, and Iron Goddess Tie Guan Yin are top choices). The aged tea will lose its original taste and fragrance but will develop new ones. Key techniques for this aging process are a proper container (an airtight stoneware canister is recommended), a cool environment (50-60°F), and occasional examination of the tea, especially during the first few years, to watch for excess moisture build-up. You know you’re on the right track if after 5 years you begin to detect raisiny, pruny, or even herbal aromas.

Why Bother

In our “gotta have it now” society” waiting 10-15 years to age an oolong, white tea, or other in order to improve the flavor is a real test of patience. So, why bother? The flavors that await you. They will be richer, warmer, and more complex. And some report an increase sensation of “cha qi” (tea energy) from these teas. Only you can decide if it’s worthwhile for you.

We carry several aged teas that seem to have borne up well over the years.