Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Gathering Background Information: Authenticating a Stack of 1970s Zhongcha Guang Yun Gong Bings


When trying to determine the age of an old puerh, I think vendor information should be taken with a grain of salt.  The older a puerh is, the more likely it has either changed hands, making its real age hard to determine.  With the passage of time, its exact age has often been forgotten.  More importantly, if a vendor is claiming to have a very old tea it is more likely to be fake.  Sometimes the vendor was simply given misinformation.  Also old puerh never has a date stamped onto its wrapper during production- that started in the Mid 2000s along with the push for Quality Control standardization (that blue “Q” you see on the puerh wrappers).  If you are buying aged puerh you should always always go to the most reputable and trusted of vendors.  But if you happen to stumble upon a potentially old puerh by accident, getting as much information from the seller will at least give you a starting point.

After picking up two of these old bings, I wanted to go back and try to get as much information about the cakes as I could from the thick accented, old, Cantonese herbalist, Thomas Chan.  Thomas Chan is a Traditional Chinese Herbalist and was trained by his father who was tired by his father.  The family owned a herbal medicine shop in the Kowloon peninsula of Hong Kong named Yan Tsu Hong Herbs.  The sign in his shop in Regina, Saskatchewan was made in the 1970s and used to hang in the original Hong Kong location.

When I asked him to tell me about how he acquired the “1970s puerh” he told me that his family’s herbal shop in Hong Kong was much much larger than his very very small retail space in Regina.  He told me that he initially placed a very large order of this puerh in the 1970s. He couldn’t remember the exact date but was sure in was the 1970s.

I asked him, “How many did you order?”

Thomas replied, “500 maybe.” As he motioned with his arms about the size of a pallet or two full.

“Wow! 500!” I replied.

“Yes, so many”

“Did you do many orders or just get them all in one order?”

“All in one order. When I moved Yan Tsu Hong to Regina in 1993 I might have moved around 300 here.”

“You had 300 of these in Regina?”

“Yes. I only sell a few every year.”

Then, to my surprise, I see another two bings of the same tea back on the same spot on the shelf!  I had thought I had picked up the last two.  It turns out that he has 9 more bings.  I offer to buy out all remaining cakes and he packs me up the remaining cakes.  They are all sealed in plastic and some look a bit redder than others.  Some are missing chunks from the edges.  Some have zhongcha stickers where some the zhongcha lable has been rubbed or has aged off.  Some are completely sealed but most are imperfectly sealed with holes and rips or spots that the plastic didn’t completely cover.

 I then go on to ask him about the storage of the cakes…

“Where were these puerh stored?”

“In my herb shop in Hong Kong and then Regina when I moved here in 1993.”

“When did you seal each puerh cake in plastic?”

“A long time ago.”

“In Regina?”

Hahaha… “Yes”

“What else can you tell me about this puerh?”

“Nothing.  It’s just old puerh, you know.  It’s very good to promote Digestive Fire in old people.  Old people can’t have new tea like Tie Guan Yin or new puerh.  It’s not good for them.  All you need is a little bit of this tea every day, not that much, and it’s good to prevent arthritis.  Research in the New England Medical Journal shows it’s like an anti-inflammatory.”

After pressing him a bit more about the dates of this tea he just laughs and says in a Cantonese accent, “It’s 70s puerh from my herb shop in Hong Kong, Ok.”

I guess this is all I can gather about this tea’s interesting past.  Content with this and 9 more of these cakes.  I leave the shop with my arms full of these iron pressed cakes and a big grin.

Peace
 



Saturday, June 9, 2018

You Need Experience: Authenticating a Stack of 1970s Zhongcha Guang Yun Gong Bings


First, I must say, it is not super easy to confirm this puerh’s authenticity.  There are a few reasons for this.  But on a personal level, I have never ever tried this famous production before.  I have had a sizable amount of puerh from the 70s as well as some cakes of my own to base my judgement but have never tried this unique series before.  This immediately puts me at a disadvantage in authenticating the vintage of this “1970s Zhongcha Guang Yun Gong Bing”.

Personal experience with old tea, lots of experience, is very important in validating the presumed age of any aged puerh you might encounter.  This is why people who drink puerh will always recommend sampling a wide amount of puerh- anything from old stuff to new stuff to puerh with different storage and shu and sheng.  If you have a wide experience with lots of puerh, you are more confident in drawing your own educated conclusions about the information the vendor supplies about a given tea.

If you have no experience with old, aged puerh then how will you even know what it is?  You won’t.  You will be at the whims of what others tell you it is, which, in the world of puerh, is a dangerous place to be.  And there is no way you would even be able to find a treasure like these.  You never know… that 1970s puerh could be at your corner store or in your local Chinatown and you wouldn’t even know it!

The first step in validating an old puerh is to rely on your own past experiences with puerh of that production and age and storage.  As I stated before, I have no experience with the famous Guang Yun Gong Bing series.  I have only enough experience to visually identify one, that’s it.  This tea does look like a 1970s Guang Yun Gong.  Well, at least that’s a starting point.

If you don’t have the experience, don’t worry.  You may be able to acquire some tea of a similar vintage for comparison.  You can do this by going to trusted vendors who have samples of the same production, age, storage.  Or you can even send a free sample of the tea in question (please contact me) to or swap with someone who claims to have a similar tea.  I think a lot of people who have extensive knowledge of aged puerh will have a lot of experience with the famous Guang Yun Gong production.  David of Essence of Tea, Varat of The Guide to Puerh Tea, and Phil Sheng are some people that, I imagine, have some significant experience with the Guang Yun Gong Bing series.

If you don’t have extensive experience with a certain aged puerh you can always do some serious research online or go back to the vendor to acquire as much information as you can on the tea.  This is what I had to do.  The next posts will explore what I have found for online research on this tea, as well as my experience going back to the vendor to gather as much information as I could on this tea.  Of course I will be posting extensive tasting notes as well…. Hahaha.

For this “1970s Guang Yun Gong Bing”, my experience with aged teas tells me that it looks old, smells old, tastes old, and feels old.  So the question really is how old? 70s? 80s? or 90s?  That’s the real question with this tea.

Peace


Thursday, May 17, 2018

Verifying a “50 Year Old Puerh Brick”


This is one of the three pieces I picked up at a local Traditional Chinese Medicine pharmacy in town.  To me it is the most unlikely to be what the sellers says it to be so it should be the easiest to confirm out of the three purchases that day.  I actually would have not even bought it if it wasn’t for me verifying the authenticity of the other “1970s” bings.  It is definitely the long shot out of the three.

As I said in the initial post, the herbalist was told they were 50 years old puerh from his herbal distributor.  He couldn’t verify the claim.  He said it came from Hong Kong.  He said that it’s the best tasting puerh that he’s carried- much better than the other 2 cakes I purchased.   He says that he is not a puerh tea drinker.  I remember that these bricks were not available for purchase in this same shop in 2009 when I picked up a 2004 Xiaguan tuo for a few bucks.

After inspecting the wrapper closely, it looks newer than the 50 year old claim so immediately I am doubtful.  The wrapper paper looks and feels like the newer type of wrappers used and there isn’t the telltale signs of aging that you would expect on a 50 years aged brick such as yellowing/ browning, teats and holes, and other wear.  If it was stored in Hong Kong I’m pretty sure it would have at least some of these signs after 50 years.

I open the plastic wrap sealing this cake and the dry leaves are a deep reddish colour.  Dry leaf smells of woody odours and piled autumn leaves with a faint plum odour.  It looks and smells like shu puerh to me.  The obvious piled autumn leaf odour indicates that this tea hasn’t really mellowed out for 50 years.  The odour would be mellower and not as sharp.  Also, there is a complete absence of old storage notes to the dry leaf at all.  No dusty, musty, attic, old library odours what so ever.  A 50 year old tea is sure to have some of this. Maybe it was just really dry stored for a long long time and kind of preserved in this state?  It is terribly dry here on the Canadian prairie…

The first infusion is impressive, much better than expected, but a bit inconspicuously lively…

It starts off creamy and sweet with a pronounced date and creamy sweet nuance in leafy woody aged tastes.  The taste is very sweet and ends is a cool menthol on the breath.  The mouthfeel is oily and lubricated with a very slight mild graininess and almost astringency left on the tongue and throat.  The aftertaste is long and very enjoyable.  The sweetness is a thick dense syrupy sweetness.

The second is very thick, dense, oily and heavy syrupy sweetness.  There is also a light sweetness as well gliding overtop the heavier sweetness.  Deep leaf pile and slight wood give this aged tea solid complexity.  There is a deep low smokiness as well.  This tea seems like it is a shu puerh from 5-10 years old tops.  It’s hard for me to tell exactly now old but likely between 5-10 years not 50.  Qi is a bit relaxing and stimulating but nothing too out of the ordinary.

The third infusion starts off with a typical creamy sweet shu puerh notes.  The aftertaste is creamy and slightly sweet.  The mouth has a certain astringency to it.  There is a leafy piled taste and woody taste to it.  At this point it seems obvious to me that this is for sure shu puerh and most likely mid-late 2000s is my guess.

The fourth infusion starts again with a creamy smoothness.  This tea is so shu puerh- creamy sweet dense slightly cooling aftertaste.  Slight woody notes, creamy almost icing sugary on top.  The mouthfeel is full and slightly sandy on the tongue.

The fifth infusion is much the same.  There is a slight scratchiness to the throat.  It really tastes like some standard shu to me here.  It contains the classic shu base profile taste.  It’s not at all bad but not 20 years old, never mind 50 years.  There is a nice vanilla note that is pretty long in the throat in the sixth infusion.  There is a bit of dry astringency in the throat.

The seventh is becoming astringent and drying with a dry woody leaf taste.  There is a slight cooling.  The stamina is not there.

This ones the dud.

For $47.00 for 250g.  This tea is not worth it but still a totally drinkable item.  I have actually gone to this puerh at work a few times and quite enjoyed it.

My guess is a 5-10 year old shu- nice enough to enjoy as a daily drinker.

Peace

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

100 Year Old Liu An & 70s Puerh Cakes: Urban Legends Do Come True!


Everyone has, I’m sure, heard the story before…

Walk into a Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine shop and start a conversation about old tea.  Old herbalist goes to back of store and pulls out old basket, container, ect.  In it is some puerh, liu ann, oolong, or liu bao that is 100 years old.  He is unaware of the value of such things or doesn’t care about selling such things for prices that defy his logic as a practitioner of medicine.  Think about it this way, would your doctor sell you medicine that is 1000x marked up?  No, of course not, in some ways this breaches ethical behavior.  So in the end you walk out with thousands of dollars’ worth of antique tea for very little money.  If you are a puerh drinker or drinker of aged teas this could possibly be hitting the Holy Grail….

And, no word of a lie, this just happened to me!

Readers of this blog will know that I have hit a patch of bad tea luck as of late.  Over the last month or so I have had an allergic reaction to seemingly delicious tea, I have had a few orders sell out just before purchase, and had an expensive, favorite teapot break.  With this said, I knew things were looking up.  But this… this is an extreme swing in the opposite direction.

I have actually frequented this old Traditional Chinese Medicine pharmacy before.  This was the same shop that I got a nice haul from back in 2009 when I picked up some items in this post.  Nothing too remarkable but good drinking 90s and early 2000s tea.  I actually visit this shop fairly regularly and had developed a relationship with the very old Cantonese speaking herbalist there.  I remember seeing two unwrapped, shrink wrapped, bings of puerh back in 2009.  It looked a bit sketchy and the herbalist said that it doesn’t taste as good as the Xiaguan tou I picked up.  I pretty much just forgot about it until I was in the herbal pharmacy a week ago.

When I saw the same two old bings again still with the $35.00 Canadian dollar price tags on them, I thought to myself, well they are at least 9 years old now and are still here.  They are probably not legit but, why not try them out for fun?  When I inquired about the two lonely bings the old herbalist said they are from the 1970s.  I immediately perked up because they actually do look like a certain cake from the 1970s.  He then tried to dissuade me, claiming that they taste bad like old puerh and old Chinese herbs.  He instead tried to sell me the only other puerh in his shop- 1 of 2 generic wrapped 250g puerh bricks which he says are 50 year old and taste better.  He is not a puerh drinker himself and after a bit of conversation he claims that he got these from his herbal distributor many years ago.  They are the only puerh he carries.

I decide to pick up one of the “1970s bings” for $27.20… I mean what’s too loose at that price anyways?

I took it to work on a day that was extraordinarily busy- one of those days where you are basically running all day without sitting.  I steeped it in a one of my Korean one cup steppers.  Honestly, I was 99% sure this was not what he said it was.  Although it was so busy I could not give it any attention, I got the impression that this was possibly a 1970s bing.  A few days later, when I had a bit of time to give it some attention, I immediately confirmed that it is most likely a 1970s bing!

So as soon as I could, I went back to the old herb store and purchased the other “1970s” bing as well as one of the other 250g bricks.  These bricks had not been at the store when I inquired in 2009 and didn’t even look that old, but after confirming the 1970s bing I wanted to find out for sure.

The old herbalist and I chatted for a bit and he confirmed that he didn’t know for sure if it was a 50 year old puerh brick but that is what the herbal distributor told him when he bought it.  He couldn’t remember how long he had stocked the brick.

Then he asked me if I knew what Liu An tea was. I told him that I was a big fan of it.  He emerged from the back of his store with an ancient looking basket sealed in an old, yellow tinged clear bag covered in a thick layer of dust.  In talking with him he said that it was a 100 year old Lui An basket and could personally confirm its approximate age.  When pressed about it he said it could be anywhere from 100-50 years old approximately.  It certainly looks quite old.

I ended up paying $334.00 in total and walking away with 4 apparently old teas- 2- “1970s bings”, 1- “50 Year Old Puerh 250g Brick” 1- “100-50years Liu An Basket”.

I hope to post extensively about tasting and trying to authenticate these “old” teas in the coming days and weeks.  I am sure some are not what they say but what if…..

I hope you will join me.

Peace

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Teapot Feng Shui


When buying a teapot I think very few people in the West think about feng shui.  When I look at the blogs and photos online I think Westerners buy a teapot because they like the way it looks or they hope that it will bring out the best in their tea.  Of course, these are very very important considerations when purchasing a teapot. I think a third consideration should be feng shui.  At least, it has always been important for myself. 

It’s true that a teapot should be in the esthetic of the person making tea and should have a feeling of being authentic for them.  It should be selected to bring out a certain quality in the tea.  Never will one pot be the best pot for all tea or all puerh tea or for every individual or every tea setting or for every guest just like one type of storage will not be optimal for every variety of puerh.  So choosing to use a certain pot or purchase a certain teapot should take this into consideration.

“Feng Shui”, in very general terms, is the placement of objects in an environment to impart a certain energy.  Throw out your images and preconceptions about what the term “feng shui” means to you and think about this very simple idea of feng shui.  When it comes to preparing tea, when pertaining to the teapot, these elements of feng shui should be considered…

The energy of the tea space in general.  What spaces do you use to prepare tea?  Is it just in one room or in different rooms and spaces?  At work and at home?  Will you use the teapot in just one of these spaces or move it into others?  What direction is the space? How is the light in the space?  What is the energy in that space like? What is the feeling of the tea area?  Is it a lively, active, or busy room or space- full of Yang?  Is it shared with many people or does it get lots of traffic?  Or is a quiet, relaxing, tranquil space, meditative space- full of Yin?

The energy, choice of implements, and arrangement of the tea setting.  Almost all of the above questions can be asked about the actual microcosmic environment or space of the tea setting.  What is around and on the tea table?  Are the implements arranged on the table in a certain logical order that follows the natural movements of preparing tea and/or serving tea?  Do the implements and teawears harmonize with each other or do they create a clash of energy, styles, feelings?  Does the volume and proportion of the teapot, cups, serving picture make sense or is one too big or two small? Is there deliberate choice behind the tea implements or is it just random?

The teapot shape, form, energy, and colour. After you have answered these questions for both the tea space and tea setting you can ask: How do you wish to influence, change or harness the energy in this space with your teapot or tea setting?  Do you want to increase a certain energy or mood or decrease it? Or harmonize with it? How do you wish to harmonize the Yin and Yang in your tea space?  The teapot is arguably the centre of the tea setting and tea space. So how will it influence this energy?

…If you wish to impart more Yin nature you should consider a darker colored and more neural clay or glaze.  Gray, purple, or dark colored clays are more Yin. The pot many contain phrases written on it that are passive or contemplative. If you want to harness more Yin you may also look for a pot with more feminine form, a rounder form, softer lines, and with a shorter spout.  The pot should look soft, smooth, and relaxing.

…If you wish to impart more Yang nature you should consider a brighter, richer, vibrant colored clay or glaze.  Red, green, blue and colorful clays are more yang.  The pot may contain phrases written on it that mention movement or transition in nature.  If you want to harness more Yang you may also look for a pot with a strong masculine form with stronger lines and more pronounced handle, lid, and spout.  The pot should embody dynamism, activity, and action.

Or a teapot that is a balance of Yin/Yang with both of these elements from Yin and Yang to create a certain balance within the pot itself.  Brown or Yellow clays tend to also do this.

Harmony with the seasonal change.  How does the teapot influence the seasonal energy?  Does you pot harmonize with the season? Or does it balance the extremes of seasonal weather, colors, and scenery/ esthetic (such as using warming colors in winter).

Energy of guests or solitary arrangement.  How does the teapot influence the feeling you are trying to impart to your guests?  Does it harmonize with the energy of your tea gathering?  Or does it attempt to balance the mood?  Perhaps the teapot attempts to cultivate a certain energy that is lacking?  If the teapot is used mainly for solitary tea steeping then maybe it attempts to balance/harmonize one’s own energy?

Balancing practical considerations with Feng Shui.  Of course there are practical implications for choosing a teapot.  Maybe you only have one or two teapots.  Or maybe a certain teapot really brings out a certain quality in your tea but goes against many of the points above.  Or maybe you are transitioning your tea space, tea setting, tea table to a different esthetic…

Or maybe you have just never put too much thought into any of this…

Maybe you will now (or maybe not)?

Peace

Saturday, May 5, 2018

A Minimalist’s Teapot Tally


Readers of this blog will know that I have been having a bit of a teapot shortage lately (here and here).  I stated in a recent post that I actually own very few teapots despite a deep appreciation of them and significant immersion in learning about them in Korea.

Below is my grand tally of all the teapots I own…

Currently, I only have two working teapots:

I have this grey one from David Louveau that is aging gorgeously with use.  It is quite a small pot maybe around 100ML and I use it mainly for puerh or any sample or tea that requires such a size.  At first, I was a bit critical of this pot but only in use has its true nature been revealed.  This pot was gifted to me by the potter himself and so is naturally very special to me.  Currently, this pot sits at work for the very rare instance I have time for a gong fu session throughout the day.  I love this pot.

The other is this teapot from Korean master potter Kim Kyoung Soo, it is also grey.  This pot is a Korean masterpiece and I usually only use it for Korean tea.  It is quite wondrous and out of all the pots I came across in Korea, I am happy to have this one.  That speaks volumes considering that I was immersed in 1000s of them at that time.  I have it at home but steeping puerh in it, which I have reluctantly done lately doesn’t feel right.

I used to have a cheap Shui Ping red clay Yixing teapot that I purchased in China.  It is a modern pot of simple craftsmanship that could hold about little over 150-200ML I think.  I used this pot at home for puerh.  I had dropped it on my Korean ceramic Kim Kyoung Soo tea table and cracked the lid in half a few years ago but it was a simple break and I would easily still use it. A few months back I was trying to unclog the golf ball filter with a tooth pick and it broke off a sizable chunk of the filter.  After that the uneven jagged filter became a serious problem because it would easily catch tealeaves and clog after every use and would be very hard to unclog.  The back pressure would cause the lid to pop off.  One day I just tossed it- it was a lost cause.  Its undoing was my fault and I had the David Louveau pot above of similar size so I didn’t bother to replace it.

My family and I steeped puerh daily in my big “Gum Sa Do Yae” Zen 250ML pot, a gift from my teamaster, until its recent demise.  I have posted an appreciation of this beautiful zen tea pot before.

That’s it!  Just these two… that is definitely teapot minimalism!

 I have used the gray Kim Kyoung Soo teapot over the last little while (here and here) to brew old aged puerh but I really feel like it is not doing the aged puerh justice so I have decided to look for a replacement for this beloved pot.

These days, in our house, we are using an old metal tea strainer and immersing the puerh tea completely into large cups before pulling out the strainer with a fork… I never thought it would come to that, but that is exactly how we drank some of the 2006 Mengku Arbour King Brick this morning and some 1990s aged Bulang a few days ago!

In a way, I feel like this is more authentic in a minimal sort of way.  If there are any readers out there who steep puerh with a teacup strainer basket- you are my hero.

Peace

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Teapot Collector Vs. Teapot User


After my recent teapot breakage I have been meditating on the whole concept of teapots.  Although I have written a ton on such things (see here and here), I feel that I have much more to say about teawares.  Please reader, join me in a series of posts that look at the beloved teapot…

To me the teapot is both an object of art in and of itself and an indispensable element in the greater art of tea.  The later could either be as the performance art of tea ceremony or in the skillful art of preparing tea or “gong fu cha”.

If you see the teapot as only an object of art then it serves no actual practical purpose other than that of art itself.  If you like to collect this type of art and display it- that’s fine by me because I also enjoy looking.  However, to me, the real art of the teapot is in its use.

The teapot is 3-D, three dimensional, because it is sculpture.  To view a teapot in a photo or on a screen is to not do it any justice.  When appreciating sculpture you have to see it at different vantage points to truly appreciate it.

The teapot is also functional art in that it serves a purpose- to make tea.  Historically, it was made for this purpose and because tea holds an important part in many societies- its make was both practical and for appreciation.  This appreciation developed into an art.  In actually using the teapot to make tea, we can we also appreciate its art on a deeper level by picking it up and appreciating its texture, its weight, the sound its lid makes when closing it, the sound hot water makes when filling it, the sight of its pour.

However, only by making tea in ceremony or, alternatively, by brewing gong fu cha (with great skill) can we reach the deepest level of appreciation.  At this level the teapot is only a smaller part of the art of preparing tea.  Its selection, to improve the tea steeping esthetic as well as to improve that particular tea which you intend to steep.  Basically, you are selecting that teapot because you think it will improve the taste or bring out a certain desirable quality in a certain type of tea.  The selection of a certain teapot also should be in harmony with, the guests, season, other teawear, the environment, the person preparing the tea, and in the esthetic of the guests you are serving.  It is at this level where art emulates life.  And life is tea.

I suppose, issues of art aside, there is also the financial part of this as well.  An old unused teapot can command very high prices these days.  I’m currently finding the price of quality yixing has gone through the roof lately, mirroring the price of puerh.  Part of this is art collecting, part of this is increasing interest in puerh, part of this is in speculation, part is that old items are just being valued at the same price of a new pot of similar quality.

On the other hand, to actually use the teapot is essentially devaluing it.  Risk of breakage increases.  For me, using it with a bunch of small children around, breakage is an almost certainty.  I think some teapot collectors out there might have groaned when they saw that last pot of mine busted up.  However, I think it was definitely the teapot users out there who could identify with this inevitable situation most.

It goes without saying that I am in the puerh drinker and teapot user categories.

Peace