During the last few weeks, I did quite a bit of macro photography. I trained my camera lens on some of the most interesting teas in the Daoli collection, and the results exceeded my boldest expectations. I’ve been drinking the stuff for years, and still I was surprised how visually appealing and somewhat strange the close-ups of my favorite teas are. How about you? Could you ever imagine that tea leaves can be soooo hairy? :-)
Recently my colleague Grega from Njamisushi drove me to Ruše, a small town near Slovenia’s Pohorje mountain range. The road is narrow but manageable. We parked right by the spring, which was great, since we had a trunk full of glass flasks for hundreds of liters of spring water. And by spring water I mean the real fresh stuff that flows naturally from an underground source.
I took this picture during summer time.
Choosing the right water
Why is it important? Because over 99% of the content of your cup of tea is dihydrogen monoxide (H2O, aka water). That’s why choosing good water is actually more important than buying top-grade tealeaves, using wonderful ware, or honing tea gongfu skills to perfection.
Here in Slovenia tap water is not so bad, especially where i live, because it isn’t chlorinated at all. However, local water is very hard. Of course I hate the fact that scale builds up so fast on tea accessories, but I also realize that most cities around the world would be very happy to have our kind of water running through their pipework. In fact, in most big cities the water is simply not suitable for daily intake, let alone making good tea.
Bottled water and Chinese tradition
More and more tea traders recommend using bottled water for tea. I don’t think that this is a good idea. Why? Because bottled water is not fresh. Storage conditions vary drastically: water may be exposed to sunlight or cold, or it may be trapped in tanks or bottles for long periods of time. Either way, a traditionalist would probably argue that water that is not allowed to ‘breathe’ lacks ‘qi’ – a big factor in traditional tea culture.
Lu Yu, the author of the first comprehensive book on tea, says that ‘the best water comes from mountain springs, while the worst is found in wells’. This rationale is still relevant. Due to prolonged contact with the rocky inlay of wells, water becomes acidic and sometimes even tastes salty. Well water is also stagnant, and where there’s no movement, there’s no life or energy. I guess it’s fine to use well water if nothing else is available, but if I have better options, I’ll do what I can to make my tea taste great and feel vibrant.
Zhang Xin You, a scholar of ancient tea culture, believes that it is best to use water from a spring near the place where the tea is grown.
Another teaist, Zhang Yuan takes a poetically philosophical stance, suggesting that ‘the essence of tea is water, while water is a substance of tea’. Good tea and spring water are in a synergistic relationship: vibrancy of good tea can only be uncovered through the living substance of natural water.
Water that is too pure is poor water
Water quality if one of today’s most discussed environmental concerns. Even sophisticated home filtering systems have been found problematic, since they tend to acidify water. For instance, my friend Grega tells me that his Brita filter produces water with a pH value of 5.5. The other issue with filters is that they remove mineral substances and other “good” elements that are crucial for perfect brewing.
Water is a natural solvent, which means that the spring water dissolves small values of polar and ionic substances contained in the underground medium through which it flows. That is good. In fact, that’s what makes water natural. No drinking water should be 100% pure.
I always free my kettle of scale before boiling a new batch of spring water. By scale I mean the sediment and lime that form both inside and outside the kettle after I use hard tap water. I watch the heating process closely and press the power-off button shortly after small bubbles start forming. Then I pour the water into a cast iron pot, let it cool down to suit the needs of whatever tea I’m making, and pour the hot water over the tealeaves that are sitting tight in a closely placed gaiwan.
There is no one best way to measure the readiness of hot water. Obviously, today one can accomplish such task with built-in or portable thermometers. However, I find pleasure in traditional ways and base my judgment on the size and shape of water bubbles. So far, I’ve heard about two classification systems: the method dating back to the Tang Dynasty that categorizes water bubbles as ‘fisheyes, joined pearls, and surging waves’, and a more complex Ming Era classification that describes bubbles as ‘shrimp eye, crab eye, fisheye, joined pearls, and surging waves’.
During and before the Ming Dynasty, Chinese only drank green tea, so it was quite important to keep the temperature low. It was later, during the Qing era, that black, wulong, and other teas requiring higher brewing temperatures started to gain popularity.
Everything I’ve written so far describes my own experience and preferences. I strongly recommend that you experiment with various ways of choosing and preparing water before and after marking down any particular approach as your favorite. Namely, with the same amount of tea, type of ware, and other conditions try to use the following types of water:
- Tap water
- Bottled water (cheap and pricey, from several manufacturers)
- Spring water
- Distilled water
Use all four and compare the resulting brews as you go through the water types one by one.
Having done a bit of experimenting myself, I have arrived at the following conclusions:
- Distilled water yields by far the worst results. The tea is notably qi-less and deflavored beyond recognition.
- Good spring water works best.
- Some bottled water is not bad at all, although it isn’t significantly better than my regular tap water. But again, aquasystems differ immensely, so in your city tap water might give you the worst results.
Here is the bottom line: if you have already purchased some decent tea and want to make the most of it, you need to have good water to make it happen. Find a local source, preferably a natural spring, and try it out!
Last summer marked my fifth year in China. A lot has changed in my life since I first arrived in Kunming, and my relationship with tea is no exception. For example, five years ago I could hardly imagine spending a day without several cups of dianhong or some other black tea. I also used to drink a fair volume of ginseng-scented wulongs and other savory, strong-tasting blends. These days, I only get to drink these teas while at a tea market or a friend’s place and someone is making tea for me. I still think highly of black tea, but ever since I learnt to select and appreciate sheng puer, I’ve found it difficult, if not troublesome, to drink anything else.
But it is the way I make my tea that has changed the most. I came to Kunming in 2008 to study Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). By that time, the Yunnan TCM University had already moved most of its premises to Chengong – a township about 40 km away from Kunming, and that’s how far away the nearest decent tea market was from our campus. So I’d go there about once a month and stock up on two or three of my favorite teas.
Plastic: I had to start somewhere…
I didn’t have many subjects the first year, but they were all in Chinese, so there wasn’t much time to play around. ‘Efficiency in everything’ was my mantra, and that meant using Tupperware mugs with clasp lids and built-in metal filters. From the convenience standpoint such mugs are superb. In fact, I used to have so much respect for them that I’d sent a few to my friends and relatives. As you can imagine, they were very, very happy.
Clay: I maybe onto something!
As I was drinking more and more tea, I started to notice the thin coating that it was leaving on the surface of the cup and the filter and how good plastic is at retaining fragrance. I was still hooked on convenience, so I opted for a structurally similar solution – a ceramic pot with a slide-in filter and a matching lid. The lid wasn’t tight and the filter holes were large enough to let through even large fragments, but the overall feeling of making tea in a clay pot was so great that I never used plastic again.
After my first clay mug broke, I bought its porcelain equivalent and used both types for a year or so. Apart from the large holes in the filter, such mugs have a number of other design flaws. First of all, there is a lot of banging, and ceramics cracks easy. Second, once the brew is done, you have to take out the filter and place it in the turned up lid, which means that some tea will drip on the table. Finally, such mugs are usually quite large, thick, and clumsy, which limits significantly the range tea brewing options.
Cast iron: I maybe onto something!
I’d seen cast iron teapots before, but somehow they never took my fancy. One day however, as I was browsing a tea market for new ware, I came a cross a display of various cast iron pots that seemed very well designed and were quite affordable. The decision was made quickly, and that same evening I gave my new teapot its first run.
What can I say? Nothing beats metal. Literally. Just handling that dozer of a teapot and rubbing the fingers against the ochre-tinted patterns of its exterior instills in me a sense of undeterred optimism. ‘You got some tea for me?’ ‘Bring it on!’ ‘Let’s brew the qi out of this sheng!’, and so on and so forth. Even though I later acquired a very nice tea tray, various gaiwans, and tea sets, for the next couple of years I made most of my tea in that very first cast iron teapot.
The key to using iron pots is padding. Since I spend so much time in front of my laptop, I need to keep the teapot right by my side. You could buy a special tea towel, but a densely knit serviette is perhaps an even better choice. Due to its rough texture and low pliability, a serviette can double as a mouse pad. Provided that it’s big enough of course.
So, what are the benefits of using cast iron teapots? First of all, they are durable. If you drop it, you usually don’t worry about the pot, but what it might destroy under its weight. Second, the enamel lining the inside of such pots is almost as good at repelling fragrance as porcelain. Third, the stainless steel strainer is fine and functional. Finally, iron pots make great gifts and can outlive even the healthiest of recipients. Bear in mind, though, that metal plays tricks with temperature, so it’s a good idea to rinse the pot with hot water shortly before brewing tea in it. Unless it’s midday in the tropics or something.
Glass: fragile excellence
The next important stage in my teavelopment was glass. Despite it’s fragility, glass is an extremely pleasant material to use for tea drinking. A simple glass teacup, for instance, might feel better in your hands and on your lips than a fancy porcelain masterpiece with an insane price tag. I spent many a day looking for a suitable glass teapot, but had to give up eventually. Most glass pots are made for herbal infusions, not tea, so they are usually quite big and have lousy filtering systems. The other downside is that glass heats up very fast, which is OK for cups, but not so for a teapot, since you often have to pick it up seconds after the hot water is poured.
The solution came in form of a set of glass mug, lid, and filter. Its design was identical to that of the ceramic mugs I used at the very beginning of my tea career with one major exception: instead of gigantic holes, the filter had four sets of very thin slits cut neatly at 90° degrees through the bottom and the side of the filter. Such a setup is great for keeping out all but the tiniest leaf fragments. I loved the concept and ordered a few hundred such mugs for Daoli. The Daoli glass mug is thicker than usual and has a body curved inward, which makes pouring from it much easier.
The greatest advantage of using a glass mug is perhaps the ability to observe every change in the tea leaf shape, texture, and color. Some tea are so beautifully crafted that watching them transform be just as fun as drinking the beverage that they yield. That’s when glassware comes in handy.
Clay pots: BINGO!
Recently, however, I’ve been making most of my tea in ceramic teapots. It all started about four months ago when I bought a cheap second-hand pot from a street junkman. The man had a few pots for sale, but the one I liked had a bird nest filter and an upbeat hippy appearance. I brought it home, cleaned it up with soda, and started using it for sheng puer. I was only impressed with it for a little while, right up until the moment when I poured myself the first cup of tea. It was a disaster: the lid came off and hit the teacup and some tea spilled on the table. I tried again and, although I managed to keep the lid in place with my thumb, the tea was still leaking through. So, it was only for use with a tea tray.
Despite its sheer design flaws, the pot was making pretty good tea. I knew there had to be more to teapots and decided to procure a better-quality pot soon. A few days later, I went to my favorite market to search for the right item. I’ve touched, sniffed, and tested dozens of teapots that day and finally decided to buy a stout designer teapot that twice exceeded the price that I’d been hoping not to go over. It was absolutely worth it!
My new teapot was amazing in great many ways. It didn’t leak at all! The lid fit so well that I didn’t have to hold it even when the pot was tilted at 90-110º. The nose was shaped in such a way that the last drop almost always stayed in it. Very good clay was used to make the pot, so handling it was a treat all by itself. The bird nest bulb performed so well that I never used a separate filter. Perhaps most amazingly, I could just let that teapot hang off my index finger and let it pour the tea steadily with the lid staying in place simply by virtue of good design.
There’s more to be said about that teapot, but as you can infer from my use of past tense in the previous paragraph, it is no longer with me. I’ll never know what caused that crack in its nose. All I know is that one day I saw that part of the nose was missing. I tried to file it down to smoothen the edges but ended up causing more damage and eventually had to give up.
The teapot is dead! Long live the new teapot!
In a matter of days, I was at the market again, looking for a worthy replacement. I had the tea tray, gaiwans, and other ware at home, but I really wanted to make my daily brews in a nice teapot. This time I got myself a shipiao (石瓢) – a sturdy pot with a wide base and a straight short nose that shoots up from the oblique body at about 45º. The pot doesn’t have a bird nest filter and contains a bit less tea, but it surely has a thick mean nose, more of a pit bull snout, actually. Its lid fits just as well, so I can still impress my guests and my self with the index-finger trick.
As I’m writing these final lines, my tank-shaped clay buddy is waiting patiently just a few inches away from my right hand. He and I know that finishing a post this long requires a celebratory brew. And I think that he and I agree that it should be sheng puer again.
This post was written by Roman.
The mighty mountain, shrouded in mist, is the place where good tea comes from.
An old saying has all it takes to describe one of the oldest tea tree mountains, a source of the finest raw tea, or maocha(1), which is used to make tea of different kinds and shapes.
The Nannuo mountain(2) is located in the eastern part of Menghai County(3), about an hour drive from Jinghong(4) (approximately 30 km). It sits at an average altitude of 1,400 meters. Well known for its long history of tea growing, the mountain has gone through a series of transformations and remains a place for pilgrimage. Its trees, aged between 200-500 years old, produce some of the best puer tea. Being driven by a powerful incentive of traveling to see the groves of ancient tea trees, I’ve set my foot in Xishuangbanna(5), the heartland of puer tea production.
One morning, accompanied by an owner of a tea shop in Jinghong, we headed for a “stone village”, to meet some of the local tea farmers. Shitou village(6) is a traditional Aini-Akha(7) settlement, which peacefully rests on the side of Nannuo mountain, amid bamboo and tea groves.
Banana plantations, merging with the horizon, have given way to the rubber trees sitting straight in the rows across the hillsides. But the place we were about to explore bore not the slightest resemblance to what we’ve just seen. To find yourself in the wilderness of Xishuangbanna, you don’t need to cross hundreds of miles. A typical landscape is a rainforest with dense vegetation, where ancient tea trees feel at home. The serpent-like road, winding around the mountain, was once in a while flowing through the mystical tribal gates, decorated with sculls and pictographic inscriptions to scare away evil spirits. The Aini-Akha, indigenous people to inhabit the region for hundreds of years, is a populous ethnic group, which is spread across the south of Yunnan.
The name of the mountain comes from the Dai language(8) and is translated as “bamboo paste”, a dish made of fermented bamboo shoots. The Aini-Akha cuisine is diverse enough and worth exploring, and you can still find this on the menu. The story behind tells us about bamboo growing thick at the foot of the mountain, and cooked by the locals in many different ways. One winter a settlement on the side of the mountain was visited by a feudal lord, who was then offered a bowl of sour bamboo paste. As the story goes, he loved the taste so much that later on commanded the villagers to manufacture and pay him the tribute in this heavenly delicious appetizer.
Ancient tea trees
Upon reaching the village, scattered across the scenic landscape of Nannuo mountain, we took a hike into a nearly impenetrable thicket of ancient tea trees, which covers a territory of approximately 15,000 mu(9).
The truth is that the image of an ancient tea tree, looming large in my imagination, was utterly different from what it turned out to be in reality. Not the size of the redwood trees, these humble giants can barely overgrow a human. However, the so-called “King of the Ancient Tea Trees”(10), which makes a famous tourist attraction, is aged at over 800 years old and estimated 14.7 meters high.
Unlike the conventional tea hedges(11) which make up an average plantation, tea trees in Nannuo are left to grow freely in their natural form, with minimum pruning to encourage new leaf growth. The tea trees are treated completely organically, which is easily seen with the naked eye: the leaves appear to be home to insects and parasitic plants, none of which would survive pesticides very well. The plants include the rare species of “crab’s claw”(12) and Dendrobium(13), which serve as raw material for a number of medicines used in traditional Chinese medicine. You may as well find them present within some herbal teas.
Being cultivated in line with hundreds of years of local farming tradition, the average tree produces about three kilograms of tea leaves per year. At the same time, tea trees which make up a hedge style plantation, harvested regularly to maintain a “hedge” shape, would give several times as much as that. New growth is generally harvested every 20 days, the harvest season starting as early as April and lasting through the late November.
The number of harvests per year may vary from place to place, however when a tea tree is given more time to recover, there is a better chance of getting high quality product. Such ancient tea trees produce the tea that can attract a very high market price, which far exceeds the price of the average plantation tea. Being extremely valuable, they provide the major source of income for the locals.
The harvesting of tea in the region begins in the period of Three Kingdoms (220-280). Hundreds of years later the mountain became a house for Bulang(14) minority people, who developed the cultivation technology. Later the harvesting tradition was taken over by Aini-Akha minority, which settles across the mountain until now.
Nowadays a famous region of tea production, back in the time of Qing dynasty plantations already covering the area of 15000 mu were giving more than 300 tons of tea leaves per year. The raw tea was then transported to the places like Menghai and Yiwu(15) for the further processing. Much of the tea was later exported to the neighboring countries, at the same time being widely consumed domestically. By the time of the late Qing dynasty, and the early republic, due to the social and political unrest which has significantly weakened the country’s economy, the tea market became unstable and dependent. Tea production has gradually declined until its rebirth in the second half of the last century(16). Yet it was only thirty years from now when some Chinese tea experts advised removing the ancient tea trees of Nannuo mountain and replacing them with conventional tea hedges or rubber trees…
At the end of the day we were resting at the house of one of the local tea growers. At last we could slake our thirst with a nice cup of raw puer tea, a universally favorite beverage in the region. The Nannuo mountain has so much to say, and one more time it was heard.
- Raw tea毛茶 [mao cha] – the tea that has been dry fried in a tea wok, then rolled and dried
- The Nannuo mountain南糯山 [nan nuo shan] – a famous tea tree mountain in Menghai County, Xishuangbanna
- Menghai County 勐海县 [meng hai xian] – a county in Xishuangbanna
- Jinghong 景洪 – a city on the south of Yunnan, the capital of Xishuangbanna
- Xishuangbanna 西双版纳 – an autonomous prefecture in the south of Yunnan province
- Shitou village 石头寨 [shi tou zhai]
- Aini-Akha ethnic minority 爱昵族 [ai ni zu]
- Dai ethnic minority 傣族 [dai zu]
- 1亩 [mu] = 614.4 m²
- “King of the Ancient Tea Trees” 古茶树王 [gu cha shu wang]
- Conventional tea hedges 台地茶 [tai di cha]
- “Crab’s claw” 螃蟹脚 [pang xie jiao] – medicinal herb which grows on the tea trees
- Dendrobium 石斛 [shi hu] – a type of orchid used in traditional Chinese medicine
- Bulang ethnic minority 布郎族 [bu lang zu]
- Yiwu 易武 [yi wu] – an ancient town in Mengla County, Xishuangbanna.
This post was writen by Alesia – Daoli Teaspotting Russia Project Manager.
If you fancy buying some fresh tea, Roman is in Kunming, waiting to personally fulfill your order!
I got a phone call from a puer drinker not long ago. He told me that after several months of storage his favorite shu puer lost a lot of aroma and flavor. He sent me a couple of samples that I could compare with the same tea that I store at home. I prepared two gaiwans, the ruined samples, and the equal amount of the same tea from my own supplies. I made sure to brew both in the same way. The difference was obvious, and it had to be due to storage conditions, since his and my tea came from the same batch. I’d say that the shu puer in question lost at least one third of its sweetness. And overall it felt like those shu cakes were kind of dull, washed out – with almost no essence left.
How to keep your tea?
Tea storage is not a simple process, but there are some simple rules: greens should be kept in the fridge, shengs need to be aged, some green wulongs should be stored in the freezer, and so on. Some teas don’t mind plastic bags, others fare much better in wooden or ceramic containers. I’ve tried all kinds of techniques and ware, and the only thing I’ve learnt is that there is no one best way to store tea. Eventually, I even stopped measuring moisture and temperature. I just did what felt right. Chinese tea masters often say that the art of tea brewing is a mixture of knowledge, luck, and intuition. I would say that the same applies to storing tea.
I’ve come to terms with the fact that there’s only so much that I can do to overcome, let alone use to my advantage, the local climate conditions. Besides, power outages, and simple human forgetfulness can have truly detrimental effects on my home-kept cache of tea. One can always go fancy and opt for a storage room outfitted with microclimate control, but that’s way too expensive and complex. So I developed a protocol, which is really about finding the proverbial golden mean that lies somewhere between the ideal and the feasible. I have to say it works pretty well, but let’s first identify the issues that we’ll need to tackle.
It is generally agreed that decent-quality greens and green wulongs should be kept in the fridge in airtight bags or containers. This is particularly true for green tea because it is not oxidized and thus quite susceptible to various external factors. Wulongs lose fragrance at a disturbing rate when left in the open. If you’ve ever been in a wholesale tea market or a big enough tea shop, you may have noticed the huge iceboxes that the owners use to store their tea.
But beware: you probably shouldn’t use your regular kitchen fridge for that purpose, unless you don’t mind the taste of other foodstuffs in your cuppa. That happens because no domestic containers are 100% airtight.
The other issue is condensation. The droplets of water that form on the inside of a container can do a lot of damage.
In the tea circles, one often hears that sheng puer should be aged. It’s true, but only if tea is aged properly. Aging sheng puer at home is a gamble. After 10 years you could end up with great-tasting, high-value cakes or…. compost material. The factors that come into play when it comes to tea aging are seasonal changes in moisture levels, mold, odors (spices, food, animal activity, pollution, etc), and, of course, the quality of tea material itself.
So, even though tea is a dry substance with significantly better shelf life than, say, meat or dairy products, bad things do happen. I’m no exception. One day I discovered that a batch of sheng puer that I’d been experimenting with started to smell weird, almost like a forsaken cellar. As I later realized, it happened because I kept the tea in airtight containers, impeding air circulation, which is a key factor in the sheng puer aging process. The tea wasn’t completely ruined though. It was drinkable, just smelled funny.
Easy to learn and use. Great results. Firsthand experience.
If tea is pressed into cakes, I leave the original wrapping paper on and place each cake in a separate ziplock plastic bag. I separate shu from sheng by placing tea of different categories into different cardboard boxes. I keep these boxes in my living room, a good distance away from possible sources of unwanted odor, heat, moisture, or sunshine. While shu puer isn’t particularly fussy about constant air exposure, sheng puer will only age properly if exposed to at least a bit of fresh air. So the paper-plastic-cardboard method that I’ve described early is a good solution. The plastic bags are not completely airtight, allowing some fresh air to leak in, and they provide enough protection from odors and elements.
I put all my loose-leaf tea (including greens) in kraft paper bags lined with a thin layer of aluminized plastic. I store the kraft bags the same way I store cakes – in cardboard boxes. I store highly-fragrant teas separately to avoid flavor loss and changes. The key to success here is airtight containment. All teas except sheng puer should be sealed as tightly as possible and stored in waterproof bags or containers to prevent oxygenation and mold growth.
There are two fundamentally different ways of storing puer: wet and dry. Both methods are suitable for sheng and shu. However, due to local climatic conditions, dry-stored puer is predominant in Europe. I don’t drink that much shu, so I don’t have a lot of experience with storing it one way or the other. But I always have loads of sheng in my house, and I’ve done a bit experimenting to figure out what works best. In my humble opinion, dry-stored puer tastes better. The idea behind wet storage is to accelerate the aging process by promoting fermentation. I appreciate the tremendous effort and skill that such task requires, but I don’t think that it’s worth the trouble. Not in my case, at least.
Needless to say, if you feel like exploring the wet storage techniques, read around the topic and make contact with people who’ve been doing it for a while. You never know which detail will help you along the road.
No one wants to be left without their tea …
The person who contacted me about the shu puer gone bad told me later that he kept the cakes in the kitchen where the tea started to absorb all sorts of surrounding odors. He then moved the cakes to the basement, unfortunately right next to the heat pump, exposing the tea to drastic moisture/temperature fluctuations. I assume that rodent activity may have done additional damage. So it’s hardly surprising that all his tea went bad. Just stick to the simple rules I’ve outlined above, rely on common sense, and your tea will be OK.
Some people like to stockpile all kinds of stuff, including tea. I try not to do that. A few years ago, Roman showed me the benefits of buying tea in smaller quantities more frequently. If I like some tea, I buy enough to last me a month and come back for more when I run out. I even do that with shengs sometimes. I only buy puer that already tastes great. No way I’m waiting 5-10 years in hope for it to transform into something marvelous. It’s simply easier to order a 10 year-old cake straight from my favorite tea manufacturers in China, where it’s been stored in next-to-perfect conditions. I’d also make sure to buy from a trusted source, somebody honest, reliable and with a sensible pricing approach. Some traders charge tenfold for 10-year old tea. And when I ask them if the tea is ten times better than it was ten years ago, I get that awkward silence that makes things very clear. Now wonder the tea investment bubble burst in 2007… once. Seeing how appallingly expensive some sheng puer is getting, a new burst might hit the industry in an observable future.
Interestingly, a similar trend is springing up in the wine industry. Some connoisseurs recommend drinking young wine, despite the age-old belief in that wine gets better with time. Why? For reasons remarkably similar to those I’ve mentioned above.
Matevž Luzar is a successful Slovene movie director and screenwriter. He is best known for his comedy drama ‘Good to Go’ – the movie that’s been filling cinemas throughout the entire spring. Prior to this, his short films have been acclaimed as great success both at home and abroad.
Matevž studied theology first, then transferred to the Slovenian Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film, and TV, graduating with a short feature film ‘Wolfy’ that was nominated for the Honorary Foreign Award at the 35th Annual Student Academy Awards competition. Matevž is a big fan of tea, so I invited him to a tea tasting gig. Some teas he has chosen himself, while other teas were my choice. For over two hours we sat at a gongfu table, drank tea, and talked about tea, his work and interests.
P.S.: This interview is also available in Slovene.
Photo: Matevž brewing the dahongpao
Have you seen a Chinese tea tray before?
I’ve seen the tea tray, gaiwan, and cups … but I’ve never used such tools to make tea. Nothing like what you are doing right now.
First we are going to pour hot water over the gear in order to wash and warm it up.
I see. Why are you using a pair of tongs?
So I don’t burn my fingers handling the hot cups. This way I can also avoid touching the surface of the cups that other people will drink from. Do you remember your first experience with tea?
I remember my grandmother had a black tea container. She said that it was Russian tea. I used to drink it when I had digestion issues. That’s a childhood memory. I do not know what kind of tea she gave me though. She just said that it was Russian tea. Later I came to Ljubljana as a student, and, although I did drink some tea, I was really more into coffee. The problem was that I couldn’t get good quality coffee anywhere. That was annoying. During that period I drank too much bad coffee. Later, as I began to re-discover tea, I started ordering it from England. Recently, I’ve been mostly drinking the teas that you and Roman offer. I used to drink tea from November to March, taking a break from it for summer. But now I drink tea in summer too.
Many people who drink coffee in summer say it seems strange that someone drinks tea when it is warm outdoors.
Yeah, that’s funny.
Have you given up coffee completely?
Almost. During the last five months I’ve just had a few cups. But it’s more like paying homage to the old habit. A cup of coffee in the morning used to invigorate me, but now the effect is quite the opposite – my energy drops.
The caffeine in tea is quite slow to both “set in” and “let go”. Coffee, on the other hand, gives you a rush of energy that reaches its peak and falls rapidly.
That’s what I like about tea. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and I always drink tea when I write. It calms me down somehow, clears my head, and helps me to stay focused.
For starters, I’m going to brew a green tea called Huangshan Maofeng. The first infusion is very gentle. I’d like to know why you’ve picked this particular tea?
I’ve spotted it a while ago, and I’ve wanted to try it ever since. I love green tea. I usually drink greens in the afternoon or evening. In the morning I prefer black. Now I actually feel like I should be drinking more green tea in general. In spring and summer, I certainly drink green tea more often.
What do you think? How’s the tea?
For this brew I will increase steeping time to 45 seconds. This is a very delicate tea. Can’t be too careful.
Yes, I personally experienced the delicate nature of greens. At first, when I was just getting into green teas, they seemed somewhat pale and watery. But I kept drinking and I soon got accustomed to the taste. Now I can perceive the different nuances that different greens offer.
I think we are too accustomed to the intense flavors of instant foods: sweet, salty, and the strong artificial flavoring. If you choose more carefully what you eat, you can train your palate to recognize and enjoy the natural flavors.
Yes, I’ve noticed that too. (Sips tea) I love this freshness. Do you use such short infusion times for black teas too?
I do, especially with delicate blacks, such as dianhong. It performs best when steeped for under 30 seconds.
Extensive steeping of black tea is common for the English tea culture. Of course, the British also add milk and sugar. The Chinese never do that.
I’m a fan of Chinese tradition too. It seems to me that brewing tea is similar to brewing coffee. You have different traditions, different schools of preparing and enjoying it. Just think of the Viennese or Italian way of preparing coffee … The other day, I had to explain to my wife why she shouldn’t put milk in tea. At least not in my tea… because that would be a waste! I also see a lot of people drink flavored teas. I never really like those.
Hold the gaiwan for a moment. Try and smell the freshly opened leaves.
This Huangshan smells slightly sweet.
Would you say that tea has changed your life in some way?
I like to sense and appreciate the nuances. I pay attention to flavor. I watch myself and observe what I like, what I think feels good. I’ve got this understanding from drinking tea, and I also use it in the film world. Tea is always by my side when I work on new movies. Most importantly, tea is still changing me. It’s a process. I‘m not a true tea master yet, but I aspire to become one. Above all, I like the fact that tea is a big part of my life now. It’s been a pleasant discovery. One thing that I still find surprising is that all these different kinds of tea come from the same plant. I realized that quite early in my tea career; it’s fascinating! I commit myself to whatever I do: I read around the topic and try to stay up-to-date with latest buzz. I feel the same way about tea. Or sushi. Or chess. It’s kind of sad that tea culture in Slovenia is still in its nascent stage. For example, in San Francisco tea culture is booming. But here in Slovenia, I simply don’t know any places where I could go to talk about tea with like-minded people. That’s why I like what you and Roman are doing for the local tea culture. You’re providing a narrative. It’s not just about tea the beverage, but everything that surrounds it.
Do you brew your tea routinely or is it a type of meditation?
I wouldn’t call it meditation. I drink tea when I write. I used to prepare it in a kettle, but lately I’ve mostly used a glass cup with a filter. I like glassware because it allows me to observe how the leaves open. I have yet to reach the point where I could make tea to specifically alter my mental state somehow. Now, as I sit here with you, I can say that drinking tea is a bit meditative. I see that you put a bit more ritual into brewing than I do. I do drink a lot of tea, but I pay little attention to preparation. I think I need a proper tea set for that. This way, when friends visit, I’ll able to make and serve tea peacefully. I’d like to know more about steeping time. Do you have any suggestions?
That depends a lot on what tea we are talking about. There is no universal rule. When I stumble upon a new tea, I take at least 50 grams for testing. I play with it on various levels: the temperature, the length of the infusion, the amount of water, etc. Once I feel confident that I know how to make the most of this particular tea, I can go and serve it to other people.
I also found that water quality is very important. If I use tap water to prepare the same tea in Zagorje, my hometown, and Ljubljana, I can always tell the difference.
Water hardness is a particularly important factor. Although tap water is drinkable here in Slovenia, some tea aficionados prefer to filter it first or simply use spring water.
I’ve tried different options, especially at the beginning, when I was a bit nervous I would overdo it sometimes. Eventually I realized that no way is too wrong. Tea is a personal thing. You try this and that, and sooner or later you learn which way works best for you.
One of the greens that you’ve picked for today’s session is a Yunnan version of biluochun. I hope you don’t mind if I brew this xuelong instead… I’ve got it right here. They differ in appearance, but they taste quite similar. They shape of the leaves has little effect on flavor.
Not at all. I know it’s hard to choose tea for tasting events. I feel like experimenting and there’s nothing wrong with a few surprises. Even if I don’t like it, I’ll be happy I tried something new.
OK, let’s brew this. Maybe it’s a little less gentle than the Huangshan we brewed previously. But this is still a very nice green tea.
I like it. (He smells it) It has some fruity notes. My biggest problem with teas that I like is that I can’t say which one is my favorite. How can I say that one is better than the other? I can’t! (Sipping the tea) So, I end up drinking a lot of tea. Do you think that there is a limit one shouldn’t go over? So as not to get drunk on tea?
This has never happened to me. Sometimes I really drink a lot, especially when Roman sends new teas, and I need to try them thoroughly, i.e. with full infusion cycles. But I can easily handle several days with no tea, so I’m obviously not addicted to it.
I’m not a tea addict either. It is true, however, that I do drink a lot. (He laughs)
Three cups a day; even more if I’m doing a lot of writing.
Photo: Sheng puer material after several infusions
Let’s now move to the raw puer. It’s called ‘sheng’ in Chinese. The taste is closer to green than black.
Sheng puer can also be aged, right?
Indeed. This sheng cake in front of us has been aged naturally for about five years. Conversely, shu puer is aged artificially by way of fermentation. We’ll try some shu puer at the end.
How much does a cake like this cost?
Price on puer is often bloated. For many people, east and west, puer tea is a form of investment. Oftentimes, when you buy puer, you really buy a story: how old it is, where and how it was made and stored. When you buy a young sheng, you often think about what this tea will taste like after 10 or 20 years. If you buy naturally aged cakes, you pay for the patina. This cake is from my personal collection, and it’s not for sale. If I were to sell it, I’d ask at least 50 euros. This is a good-looking and highly drinkable tea… In China you can choose from a wide range of puers: from dirt-cheap to madly expensive. Some tea shops don’t offer cakes worth less than 100 euros.
I must admit I never drank a lot of puer tea. Seeing how you make it for me, I can’t help thinking that I definitely overbrewed those few puers that I’ve tried. By the way, how do you store such tea?
This particular sheng cake is fairly dry, so it was probably aged in Kunming. In Hong Kong, for example, the climate is more humid and it affects the aging process. Unless you intend to store of it for a long time, you shouldn’t worry too much about it. Just keep it wrapped in paper and put it in a box. That’s it! I go through cakes quickly, and I don’t age them. Just keep it away from odorous substances. So, what do you think about this sheng?
I love it. You are right: it’s very drinkable. It makes a big difference how you prepare it. I’m used to larger quantities of water, but you use a gaiwan and add a bit of water multiple times.
Is there a tea that you’ve wanted to try for a while but never got a chance?
Just last week I read about a tea called dahongpao. This is one of the teas that I would like to try. I watched a documentary about a man who travels through China, looking for old tea cultivation traditions. He also spoke about dahongpao. Cliff or rock tea, isn’t it? As I understand, that tea is very expensive.
Quite right! It’s extremely expensive and inaccessible. The original dahongpao is harvested from several trees that grow on the rocks of the Wuyi Mountains. For mortals there is practically no way to ever try that tea. However, people were able to acquire cuttings from those plants and cultivate this varietal in other locations. The tea leaves harvested from such plants undergo the same processing steps as those used for the original dahongpao, and this is how more affordable versions of this tea have been able to make it to the market. Unfortunately, I’ve never tried that original dahongpao. What I do have is a bit of Yunnan-grown dahongpao that I can make for you right now if you are interested.
Yes, please, let’s brew it. (Sips) I think I could drink this every day. (Laughs) And I do not mind that it’s not the original.
While we are trying the Big Red Robe, let’s talk about tea in the movies. I’ve watched ‘Tea with Mussolini’, ‘King’s Speech’, and ‘Darjeeling Limited’ – three different films that all display elements of the English tea tradition. Black tea, tea service, long infusion times, milk, snacks…
Precisely! Also, Hitchcock came to mind with his ‘Suspicion’. In that film, tea is used as murder weapon. The main protagonist is convinced that her husband wants to kill her. In fact, he plans to put poison in her tea. I agree with what you said. You can see the Anglo-Indian influence on how tea is presented in movies we watch. We mainly watch movies from the Anglo-Saxon world. Movies transmit tea culture through the pryzm of English writers. If you watch Asian films, you’ll get a different picture. Watch some Japanese movies for example, and note how they show the culture of drinking tea. I think that our ideas about how tea should be prepared and consumed would be different if we were more exposed to non-English productions. On the English note however, I remember the movie called ‘Tea for two’ …
By Butler? I have this film on my to-watch list, but I haven’t been able to find it.
Yes, that movie is old. It was made in the fifties. I remember. I watched it about ten years ago. There’s a lot of tea and tea ware in that movie … Another work that features tea is ‘Poirot’. But this is again the English tea tradition. We can look into American production as well, but those movies feature iced tea and lots of sugar. I must say coffee plays a much stronger role in US movies than tea when it comes to placing beverages in the actors’ hands.
What can you say about the scenes in certain movies, where one can see water pouring from teapots?
That’s a common thing for movie making. Actors also don’t drink real alcohol. Think about how many takes there can be for a single scene. Actors would have to drink tea for the whole day. Besides, water is a lot easier to handle. There’s a myriad of more important things that need to be considered at the set. Film making is a complex process, and errors like this do occur… unfortunately.
How does this affect authenticity? Connoisseurs are often attracted to filmmakers’ attention to details…
Here you can see the difference between good and bad films. However, most viewers do not notice such small mistakes. You notice water instead of tea. Things you’re into or deal with at work, you are more likely to notice, of course.
When watching a movie, what do you pay attention to?
As a professional film director, I am biased. However, when I first watch a movie I try to look at it through the eyes of an average viewer. I try not to pay attention to professional stuff, such as what tricks the director had to use to achieve a certain effect. I try to keep an open mind and enjoy the film. Then I watch the movie again – often more than once – and do my analysis. I notice stuff, of course … Minor errors that you mention … of course I see them too. Say, we were filming a scene with this very tea setup … We’d have to hire someone who would make sure that all the gear is positioned in exactly the same way throughout all takes, that the amount of tea in cups remains the same, etc. We’d probably spend the whole day shooting just this one scene. So it’s quite impossible to avoid all mistakes. You can keep their number to a minimum, if you have a good team. For instance, when I was filming ‘Good to go’, one scene was shot in the Chinese restaurant. Among other things, we had to make sure that the food was arranged properly: the position of plates on the table, food freshness, how much food should be left at a certain point, etc.
What interests me about ‘Good to go’ is the ending. Can I ask you for a personal interpretation of the last 5 minutes of the movie?
I agree that the end is very open. For most of the movie viewers follow a single storyline, but in the end the camera takes them to the other rooms where viewers see new stories unfold. Some people are happy, some are alone, some are dying. The circle of life illustrated in this film is very important. A 70-year-old “adolescent” goes through a change and realizes that it’s never too late to live his life to the fullest. Also, the movie shows that everything moves in cycles: that parents become children of their own kinds when those grow up. That is why the ending is as it is. The main characters are happy, and at this point in time we are no longer interested in their story. There are other stories going on. However, I personally like the fact that the ending encourages debate and reflection. Everyone is welcome interpret the ending in their own way. That is a good thing.
The Slovenian audience and film critics liked your first feature movie. However, I’m more interested in what you think about your work? You’ve written, directed, edited. What do you feel when you sit with the rest of the audience and watch the premiers of your own plays and movies?
‘Good to go’ is a summation of a stage in my creative development. It’s the last part of a trilogy. It is no coincidence that Slovenian actors Janez Škof and Evgen Car meet at the beginning of this feature film. Both have already played in my previous short films. All in all, I’m glad that through this trilogy I’ve told a story that I’ve always wanted to tell. I wanted to explore loneliness, aging, and human relationships in Slovenia. This specific theme can be seen in all of my works. With each film, of course, in the end I wonder what would happen if I changed this and that… especially with feature films. I have no problems watching ‘Good to go’ again and again because I am very happy with how it turned out. I enjoy watching my movies with other people. I observe their reactions and draw conclusions. Someone is laughing, someone is sad. That means a lot to me.
What is more important for you: that your movies become hits at the box office or is it more about the embedded message?
If you shoot a film for commercial purposes only, it will be quickly forgotten. You know that you made a good movie if it passes the test of time. If 10 years from now people still watch your work, you know you’re doing it right. At the same time, each work of art conveys a message. If the message contributes with commercial success, that’s just another confirmation of your professional success. What’s really important to me is that the viewers generate some kind of reaction to my work. I like feedback. One woman took her mother to the cinema to watch my movie. Her mother hadn’t gone to the movies for half a decade, but she went to see my film. That flatters me.
‘Good to go’ is doing very well. What are your plans for the next production? What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a new script. I don’t want to reveal any details for now. Nor do I have a specific deadline in mind. The path to the next movie will be long. Screenwriting, securing funds, shooting, editing – long way to go before it hits the theaters.
Can you say if your next film will feature at least one scene with tea?
PS: At the end of the session we brewed a few coins of shu puer with snow chrysanthemum. More about Matevž Luzar can be found on his website. This interview was conducted by Miha Jesenšek and translated into English by Roman Kaplunov.
For a few weeks already, various kinds of freshly harvested green teas have been flowing into Kunming tea markets from tea farms in Yunnan and other Chinese provinces.
Here’s what the leaves of freshly brewed Huangshan Maofeng look like
Late March was marked by the arrival of zhuyeqing from Sichuan, tieguanyin from Fujian, and a wide variety of Yunnan-grown green teas. Some of the more sophisticated greens, such as longjing and huangshan maofeng, took a couple more weeks to get here. As usual, their supply was limited and price – well above the average pain threshold. April saw the arrival of the bulk of greens that one generally expects from a spring harvest. Now we are just waiting for a few more green teas from some remote provinces to complete the spring 2013 collection. Local tea industry has been affected by climate change too. In many parts of China, winter season has shifted by about a month, which pushed the first plucking sorties accordingly.
Spring is the prime season for green tea. As winter loses its grasp, tea trees come to life and start growing their young and tender buds. Depending on location, tea varietal, and weather conditions, farmers let the buds grow for two to six weeks. The buds are then plucked and processed carefully to make the first and the most treasured batch of the year’s green tea selection. Tea aficionados around the globe rub their hands in anticipation of this highly sought after produce.
For most green teas, freshness is particularly important. It’s best to drink them as soon as they hit the market. Harvest season is also a key factor. I personally prefer green teas harvested in spring, although summer and autumn seasons can often yield very nice teas too. Spring-plucked tea leaves are particularly gentle and full of life. Think about all that life force that’s trapped in the plant for several winter months and is suddenly released with the rays of the spring sun. I also believe that the best tea is hand-picked, sun-dried, and manually processed with minimal or zero reliance on electrically powered contraptions.
Purchasing and storage
Now is a good time to stock up on green teas. By early May the market stabilizes significantly and prices settle at a generally accepted level. Unless you are buying small quantities of tea for immediate consumption, you should make sure that you know how to store your greens properly. If you are planning to finish your tea within a month or two, you can simply keep it on a shelf. Just keep it from direct sunlight, moisture, and odorous substances (such as spices). If you have green tea that you know will last you awhile, you should package and store it properly as soon as possible. If it’s a neatly curled wulong or biluochun, feel free to put it in a vacuum-sealed bag and store it the fridge. If it’s some fragile tea that gets easily crumpled, just put it in a couple of ziplock bags, a tupperware container, or a heat-sealed plastic bag. Storing tea in a freezer compartment is acceptable for some wulongs, but most greens will do just fine in near-zero temperatures.
Why vacuuming and cooling? In this way, you can limit the fluctuations in the temperature as well as exposure to moisture and oxygen, and thus extend the life of the green tea. If all this storing and packaging sounds like a hassle – don’t worry about it. Just keep your tea on the shelf and try to finish it sooner. Green tea is not meant to be stockpiled.
Freshness of tea is of course a relative concept. It is impossible to preserve tea leaves in their pristine state and shape. After the tea is harvested, it undergoes a number of processing steps: sun-drying, stirring, mixing, wilting, oxidation, killing the green (shaqing), etc. The order in which these steps are performed as well as their length and intensity determine the final flavor, aroma, and outlook of the tea. Needless to say, the art of making good tea is no easy undertaking and sometimes borders on outright magic. After the tea obtains the desired characteristic it is dried in special ovens. By tea industry standards dried tea leaves should contain no more than 5% of water. A higher moisture content will undermine its shelf life.
Preparation of green tea
There is no single best way to brew green tea. Most instructions on green tea packaging say that lower water temperature is recommended, but that’s about it. So, it’s important to try to ‘get to know’ different types of green tea personally. I almost never look at brewing instructions. Instead, I’m prepared to sacrifice up to 50 gr just to experiment with it. Only when I feel confident that I know how harness all of its goodness, will I serve the new tea to others.
I don’t drink green for health reasons. I couldn’t care less about all these polyphenols and antioxidants that are mentioned in so many tea descriptions (click here to read an article about Research into green tea and preventing cancer). And although I appreciate the invigorating effects of the beverage though, I mostly drink green tea because I like the taste. I also enjoy preparing it. Especially when I have enough to use my gear: the tray, gaiwan, pitchers, filters, small cups, etc. Most importantly, I like sharing it with a good company that often gathers around my table.
Which greens do I drink? When I get tired of wulong, black, or puer, I now reach out for one of these:
- Xuelong (Yunnan) – green with gentle wulong touch. Otherwise typically Yunnanish fruity.
- Liu’an guapian (Anhui) – Interesting tea because the inner part of tea leave is taken out during processing
- Longjing (Sichuan) – very pleasant autumn and chestnutty flavors.
- Huangshan maofeng (Anhui) – tender and gently sweet. What a treat.
Have you ever tried to eat a tea cake? This may seem a hard task at first. Until you learn how to cook it. This is not a description of puer production process! If you feel puzzled, here is the answer: we simply use tea to make what I call a true puer cake.
For this particular cake I used Imperial Blend, but any puer you fancy would do.
What are the health benefits of puer tea?
Since long ago puer tea was famous for its medicinal properties. Being recognized as the most consumed tea worldwide, for hundreds of years puer has had a place in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine. The healing powers of this tea have always been praised by TCM practitioners. Since both foods and medicines come from natural plants, there is no definite difference between them. Thus in traditional Chinese herbalism, puer tea is considered to open the meridians and be beneficial to ‘blood cleansing’ and digestion. Puer has also been used to treat a number of other conditions.
One of the most fascinating teas in the world, puer represents a perfect combination of vitamins and essential minerals. It is also believed to be a source of vital energy. As a part of a healthy diet, drinking pu-erh on a daily basis brings immediate benefits. It is widely acknowledged that pu-erh may lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and increase metabolism. In recent years, studies investigating health benefits of puer tea have also shown healing effects on oxidative stress, blood sugar and the bacterial flora of the intestines. Drinking puer reduces the risk of cancer. The fact that this tea has an effect on body weight remains a disputable topic. Though there are researches who believe drinking pu-erh may cause a certain weight loss by helping to increase the speed of digestion.
Why use puer tea for cooking?
If you consider yourself a tea aficionado and want every moment of your life to be a part of unique tea experience, there is a solution. The fact that tea itself may be used for cooking considerably expands the area of its usage. Having learned a couple of useful “tea recipes”, you can not only nourish your passion for tea, but satisfy hunger in a less poetic way. To all the questions which may ever give you trouble the prompt and single answer still seems to be: “Go have some tea”. Though it is not specified whether you should drink it or not.
Cooking a puer tea cake
A Chinese proverb says: “Better to be deprived of food for three days, than tea for one.” What if we combine the notions of tea and food and put it on a dinner plate? Or in a baking pan, to be more exact?
The basic ingredients:
- 500g flour
- 150g sugar
- 1 cup puer tea
- 3 tablespoons jam
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- Dried fruits/nuts/whatever you like – unlimited
As you may see the list contains no products of animal origin. Therefore a tea cake seems to be a perfect solution for those who keep to a vegan or vegetarian diet.
The cooking process itself is so simple you can do it with closed eyes. All you have to do is to mix all the ingredients. I mixed all the dry ingredients first, adding tea, blueberry jam and vegetable oil afterwards. In fact you can use any other type of tea, though puer remains the best choice, which is proved by my own experience. It is better to use a sourish jam and add a little of sugar, or honey instead of jam – in this case you add no sugar at all. If everything is done right, the dough has a consistency of Greek yoghurt. Dried fruits and nuts which are additional ingredients will help you to make the cake the healthiest meal of a day. I sliced up some dates, dried apricots and prunes. About 2/3 was mixed with dough, and the rest I used to decorate the cake after it was done.
After the dough is ready, preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Butter the base of a round cake pan. Then pour the mixture into prepared pan and bake for 30-45 minutes. Well done! What you need to do next is to take a glass of fresh carrot juice – this is exactly what I did – and enjoy your puer tea cake.
A few photo’s from my culinary experience
This post was writen by Alesia – Daoli Russia Project Manager. Among her recent discoveries – handmade Puer&Honey soap. Stay tuned!
There are two kinds of puer tea: shu (ripe, cooked, heavily fermented) and sheng (raw, slightly fermented).
The main difference between the two types is that shu puers undergo an extensive (several months to a year) fermentation process, whereas sheng puers are fermented slightly, for a much shorter period of time.
Puer tea @ Kunming tea market: neatly pressed cakes, loose sheng, and lumpy chatou of shupu
Puer production process
Shu and sheng puers are both derived from maocha (毛茶), which essentially, refers to sun-dried tea leaves. The dried leaves can be stored as raw material or used immediately for production. To make sheng puer, maocha is steamed and pressed into cakes, bricks, nests, and other shapes. Some people sell it in loose form too. Maocha can also be soaked in water for about a week in order to kickstart the natural fermentation. Sheng puer buds and leaves keep their distinctive greenish color. This tea is ready for immediate consumption or aging.
The process of making shu puer is quite different. Large tea leaves and buds are heaped together in a large room or container. Once a certain amount of water is added to the pile, the room temperature is increased and changed accordingly to adjust the fermentation process. The thermophile (i.e. heat-loving) microorganisms then begin to work their magic on tea by changing its color, texture, and chemical composition.
Grades of puer
Once the fermentation process is over, tea is sent through special sieves that separate the freshly fermented mass into tea of various categories: gongting, extra, 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th grades. Traditionally, there are no 2nd, 4th, and 6th grades to make differentiation easier. What determines the class of tea? In the case of shu puer it is primarily the size and shape of tea buds and leaves. Gongting, for instance, is supposed to be buds only with each bud averaging 1-1.5 cm (half an inch) in length. Extra class is 50-60% buds and 40-50% leaves. First grade puer is approximately 30% buds and 70% leaves. Third grade has leaves that are larger in size and the bud content is accidental. Fifth and seventh grades are entirely made up of leaves, the main difference being in size, thickness, and texture of tea material used.
When I heard about the puer making process, my first question was why different grades of puer are not fermented separately. First of all, that would make the price of tea much higher, since leaves would have to be separated manually prior to fermentation, which is possible physically, but unviable economically. The second reason is that buds fermented separately from large leaves may not obtain the desired taste and aromatic qualities. In other words, the chemistry involved in the fermentation process requires the enzymes contained in both buds and leaves to produce good quality tea.
Why press puer tea
Both sheng and shu types of puer can be sold in loose form, but it has become common practice to press puer into cakes and nuggets of various shapes and sizes. Cakes are much easier to store and transport than crates or bags of dry leaves. Pressed teas also keep their taste and fragrance for much longer periods of time. However, during the pressing process, a lot of leaves get damaged. This is particularly true for smaller nuggets that have a relatively high proportion of fragmented and virtually no undamaged leaves. However, these changes are purely cosmetic in nature, i.e. having zero effect on the taste and quality of pressed puer.
Chinese law requires tea manufacturers to mark their cakes with the year in which the tea was pressed, rather than when it was processed. The tea inside a cake that was pressed, say, two years ago could actually be older than that. Tea traders may or may not want to share this information with you, but they usually do if you ask specifically. Whether or not their answer reflects the reality is a mixture of luck and guanxi (Chinese word for rapport).
To age or not to age
In fact, one of the most common questions asked about puers is how old they are. There is a common belief that the older puer is, the better its taste, aroma, and health benefits. To make the long story short, this assumption is generally true, but only if the tea is stored properly.
Sometimes puer is made with the focus on quality and not the taste. For instance, a tea manufacturer may wish to create an unblended, spring-harvest, buds-only cake of gongting shu puer. Sounds amazing, right? Not necessarily. If consumed within a year or two after production, this tea may not have some of the taste, aroma, and brewability qualities that a tea connoisseur might expect to observe. However, let it age properly for a few years, and you are very likely to get a cake of excellent-tasting puer that can be brewed up to ten times.
Conversely, the very same tea manufacturer may decide to create a blended, half leaves and half buds, moderately rough-looking cake of shupu (shu puer). Some people might say that the manufacturer is trying to save money. Others would complement his desire to make tea that tastes reasonably well the year it is pressed. Who is in the right here is a rhetorical question, so I’m going to leave it unanswered.
Some personal thoughts
Let’s not forget that tea is made for drinking, not for storage or aging. I like to think about it this way: would I buy a car that I need to work on at home for a while before I can drive it safely and comfortably? Probably not, unless it’s a bargain or something. The same rationale applies to tea. Why buy tea that I don’t like the moment I am sampling it at the shop or market? I just buy the tea that I like and feel happy that it has an insanely long shelf life.
While it is certainly true that properly aged puer tea is likely to reveal some hidden properties, it is important to remember that a great deal of the tea-aging paradigm is the result of the puer investment bubble that captivated China about a decade ago. That bubble burst in 2007, leaving scores of thousands of Yunnan farmers and tea brokers poor, but its ripple effects in form of multiple myths and legends regarding scientifically confirmed and imaginary properties of puer are still affecting the way people think about this tea in the whole world.
In fact, tea aficionados like myself are partly responsible for perpetuation of such myths. Whenever I go to a shop that sells puer tea, I often ask about the age of cakes that take my fancy. I know that it’s silly, but I simply can’t help it. It’s a great conversation starter, especially when dealing with people who speak a dialect of Chinese that I’m not familiar with. I’m fully aware that by asking this question, I reveal the level at which my choices can be manipulated. Fortunately, I’ve been exposed to tea culture long enough to rely on my palate, and not eyes or ears.
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