Saturday, March 18, 2017

2003, puerh far West

2003 raw puerh
China's state monopoly on the production and sale of tea (and puerh) lasted until the end of the 20th century. In the first years around 2000, some big private players started to create new factories with their own brands (like Haiwan or Changtai). But there were also small producers that simply started to press tea and didn't have the money or even the marketing skills to create their own brand and wrappers.

So, they did what most small producers were doing: they pressed cakes and wrapped them with a copy of the well-known CNNP design. These were the days of the puerh Far West, when law was very loosely, if ever, enforced. (Even my top quality wild Yiwu raw puerh cake from spring 2003 originally comes in a blank white wrapper. That's why I had to ask a friend to write this calligraphy on a second wrapper around this cake).

It's only after 2005 that China set up and started to enforce a Quality System on the production of puerh cakes. Factories had to be registered, production date had to be mentioned... Spring 2003, however, was still the wild West in Yunnan when this small private factory cake was made. I found this spring 2003 raw puerh cake thanks to a Taiwanese tea merchant who frequently travels to China. 
This cake has 2 things going for it: the price and the aged scents. At 59 USD for a 14 years old raw puerh cake, it's very affordable. And the aged scents of camphor, wood and earth are already shining thanks to excellent storage condition. 
The leaves are not fancy old arbor, but are decent young plantation puerh. The color of the open leaves shows that they have aged well and shed their fresh green colors. Now the color is between dark green and brown.

For this Chaxi, I have aired the dry leaves for a couple of hours before brewing them in a small Yixing zisha Shuiping. This has helped to make the taste quite smooth and sweet. The raw puerh energy is present in the long aftertaste.

This tea is great to get familiar with (well) aged raw puerh at a low price and as a daily tea for aged puerh fans. It's also interesting to compare it to my wild raw 2003 Yiwu puerh to understand the taste difference between plantation and wild puerh.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Présidentielle 2017 - Humour

Plantation de thé en hiver à Dong Ding
Pour mieux comprendre les candidats à l'élection présidentielle, toute l'équipe du blog TeaMasters a enquêté sur les thés que boivent les principaux candidats. Même le Canard Enchainé n'a pas réussi à se procurer cette exclusivité mondiale!

François Fillon: Il boit du Guanxi Cha! Le concept chinois du Guanxi consiste à se faire des cadeaux pour entretenir une amitié longue et prospère. Ainsi, les fermiers ont de tous temps fait cadeau de leurs meilleurs feuilles aux empereurs afin de recevoir leurs bonnes faveurs.

Benoit Hamon: Il buvait du thé rouge jusqu'il y a peu de temps, mais il boit maintenant Oolong depuis son alliance avec Jadot. En effet, les feuilles de thé semi-oxydé sont rouges sur l'extérieur et vertes à l'intérieur.

Marine Le Pen: Non, elle ne boit pas de thé blanc. Ne croyez pas ce fake news! Elle boit surtout de la camomille, cette tisane de fleur blanche et blonde cultivée en France!

Emmanuel Macron: Il boit du WenChuang cha! C'est un autre concept Taiwanais, plus moderne que le Guanxi cha. Wen est l'abréviation de wenhua, la cuture, et Chuang signifie créativité. Il s'agit d'un processus créatif nouveau basé sur la culture. Appliqué au thé, cela nous donne de très jolis nouveaux emballages très designs, mais, en réalité, le thé est le même que dans l'emballage précédent.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon: Il boit du thé rouge de Chine Populaire de 1980. Certes, ce thé ne s'est pas beaucoup bonifié depuis, mais il a été produit par des camarades vivant le rêve communiste. A l'époque, ces travailleurs produisaient peu cher uniquement pour l'export, car le thé était un luxe bourgeois qu'aucun Chinois ne pouvait se payer.

Rama Yade: Cette candidate ne semble pas réussir à se qualifier pour la présidentielle. Est-ce parce qu'elle boit du jeune puerh, un thé noir encore très minoritaire et peu connu en France?

La liste des politiques suit l'ordre alphabétique. (Les plus anciens lecteurs se rappelleront peut-être cet article de 2007.) Sachons rire ensemble de peur d'en pleurer!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A colorful friend and inspirer

A dream came true last Saturday. Sasha and I met in person around a cup of tea in the mountains for the first time. This Israeli tea friend and I have stayed in contact since his first tea order. His photography is very creative and he makes good use of today's post processing capabilities to enhance the colors of his pictures in a very joyous way. Buildings sometimes turn into butterflies! And just looking at his smart, innocent, happy and skinny face brings a smile to mine!
Sasha does not just bring happiness to those around him, he even brings good weather! The sun made a long awaited appearance during his weekend trip to Taipei and has disappeared behind new clouds as soon as he left! That's why we were able to brew in one of my favorite spots in the mountains. We started with this High Mountain Oolong from Da Yu Ling (95K). Then, since it was a little windy and cool, we brewed 3 warmer, more oxidized jassid bitten Oolongs.
Fall 2016 Zhuo Yan Oolong from Shan Lin Xi
First the 2016 Zhuo Yan Oolong, then the 2013 concubine and the 2001 concubine Oolong at the end. They are a taste of sweet and pure life! And they were interesting to compare one against the other.
After showing Sasha how I brew my Oolongs and also let him practice his skills with my accessories.
And when the sun started to set and stopped shining on our spot, I lent Sasha my beret and vest to keep him warm!
I later found out that Sasha is vegetarian (like many serious tea drinkers) and not a smoker (even if his hair sends a different message, as he joked!) That's why his palate is very sensitive to very clean and natural flavors and why he's such a fan of high quality teas.
I was very happy to share this colorful tea moment with such an inspiring friend.
Toda raba Sasha! Lehitraot!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Un thé d'exception pour un voyage aux pays des arômes

Dong Ding Oolong du printemps 1980
Je risque de passer une fois de plus pour un élitiste du thé si je ne fais pas ce petit rappel qu'on peut trouver beaucoup de plaisir quotidien dans des thés simples et bon marché comme un Jinxuan Oolong frais, un SiJiChun traditionnel, un Baozhong printanier, un thé vert parfumé avec des vraies fleurs de jasmin... Mais ce qui fait tout l'intérêt du thé c'est que les niveaux de qualité (et de prix) sont très variables. On tombe parfois sur des thés qui explosent nos référants, ce qu'on croit savoir et qui ouvrent des perspectives complètement nouvelles. Ce genre de thés sont d'autans plus appréciés qu'ils sont dégustés par des personnes qui ont une expérience approfondie de mets et breuvages fins (= une certaine élite du goût).  
Un grand nombre de mes lecteurs français tombe dans cette catégorie, j'en suis certain. Et l'un d'entre vous est venu me revoir à Taiwan pour prendre 3 cours de thé en 4 jours. Nous avions commencé par les puerhs du Yunnan, puis continué avec les Yan Cha de WuYi. (Ces derniers thés sont si rares que vous ne les trouverez pas dans ma boutique en ligne. Par contre, suite à cette rencontre, j'ai décidé d'en offrir 2 grammes + 1 mini gaiwan pour toute commande de plus de 500 USD).
Pour terminer cette série de cours en beauté, je décidai d'infuser un cousin des Yan Cha, le Dong Ding Oolong de Taiwan! Et je ne choisis pas n'importe lequel, mais ces feuilles du printemps 1980 du village de Feng Huang! Il s'agit de l'âge d'or des Dong Ding Oolongs. A l'époque, il n'y avait pas encore d'Oolong de haute montagne et ce terroir était le plus prestigieux (grâce à la compétition du même nom qui débuta en 1976). Cet Oolong permet de voir la proximité du process de fabrication, degré d'oxydation et de torréfaction. En 1980, les feuilles étaient récoltées individuellement, ni trop jeunes, ni trop grandes.
La couleur et la transparence de l'infusion sont impeccables. L'infusion brille. Elle est claire et dorée. Les senteurs de vieux bois sont riches et nettes. Mais en même temps il y a une impression de vigueur, d'énergie douce et tranquille. Le goût est tout en rondeur. Des odeurs de pêche melba maintenant donnent des accents plus sucré. La longueur en bouche est d'une finesse phénoménale. Il reste présent tout en subtilité et harmonie. Que du bonheur. Certes, il n'a pas la minéralité propre aux Yan Cha, mais il a la générosité et le moelleux fruité caractéristique de Dong Ding. Chaque infusion accentue un peu plus le côté fraicheur de cet Oolong âgé à la perfection.
Cet Oolong 1980, c'est une machine à remonter le temps. C'est une leçon de maitre de ce qu'est un thé de qualité. C'est l'occasion de comprendre la relation entre WuYi et Dong Ding. Mais c'est surtout la chance de partager un moment de finesse, de perfection et de bonheur avec un ami passionné de thé, de vin et de gastronomie. Et cela me rappelle bien à propos que cette envie de partager le bonheur du thé est à l'origine de ce blog. Merci encore pour votre lecture et votre soutien.
(Et merci à Olivier pour ses 3 photos pour cet article).

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Hong Kong, 20 years later

When Hong Kong was under British rule from 1841 to 1997, it was THE major hub to purchase products (including tea) from China. For far too long, China didn't conduct much direct trade with the rest of the world, but let the merchants of Hong Kong play this crucial role. The city grew particularly rich when it was possible to purchase cheap goods on the poor Mainland and then sell them with a high mark-ups in international markets.
Flagstaff House Museum of Tea Ware
The economic rise of China in the 1980s (thanks to Deng Xiao Ping's liberalization) was an opportunity for Hong Kong at first. China became the factory of the world and Hong Kong played a vital role in the growing exchanges between China and the rest of the world. But China's economy grew so big that it slowly learned to make business directly and skip the Hong Kong middlemen. This trend was already obvious in 1997 when China regained sovereignty over the British enclave. 

Nowadays, Hong Kong's middleman model is further challenged by the fact that Mainland China is no longer a poor country. Many factories in Guangzhou (around Hong Kong) are closing because the wages are too high. (New factories are opening in Vietnam and Indonesia instead).

The same is true for tea. It has become increasingly difficult to find low price and high quality tea in Mainland. Affluent Chinese customers in Shanghai or Beijing are now willing to pay (much) more for top quality tea than Hong Kong, Taiwanese or Western consumers.

I don't have figures for tea, but imported wine is probably a good indicator for China's appetite for luxury beverages. This chart shows that wine imports have really taken off in the last decade (multiplied by 40 between 2005 and 2015)!

History helps to explain why Hong Kong's tea shops have been loosing their relevance. In the 1990s, Taiwan was a major consumer of puerh. And when Hong Kong reverted back to China in 1997, Taiwanese buyers purchased most of the inventory of old raw puerh that were stored in Hong Kong.

After 1997, when China stopped the monopoly of the CNNP on the sale of tea, Taiwanese merchants were among the first to go to Yunnan to purchase puerh directly (and skip Hong Kong).

This is how Taiwan was able to access to most of the best old and young puerh until roughly 2006, when China started to better structure its own tea market and when its consumers started to purchase top quality teas.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to return to Hong Kong for a 1 day trip. Last time I was there, it was 1996! The old red buses are probably what reminds me most of the past British flair of this city. Having some time to spare in the city, I met Christopher, a Hong Kong tea fan and reader of my blog. We started with a visit at the Tea Ware Museum. Unfortunately, most of the old teapot collection wasn't accessible due to renovations.
After a delicious lunch in a traditional market, Christopher took me to visit several tea shops. Here is what happened:
- one of the shops looked nice and new from the outside, but once I had closed the door I recognized the particular smell that was overwhelming: mold! It's the nasty smell you get in a closet when it's too humid and the clothes start to have mold! The whole store had this terrible smell. We left quickly!
- There was a shop where the owners were eating, petting their dog, reading their phone... not paying any attention to us. A look on the stickers on the teapots indicated that things were not cheap here. We left.
- I recognized a tea brand that I purchased over 10 years ago in Taiwan. It was a very heavily roasted (nice but fake) WuYi tea. The shop was neat, the packaging cute and traditional but there was no place to try tea and no cup of tea was offered. It also wasn't possible to purchase samples. We left.
- In another shop, we noticed that the employees were busy packaging shu puerh cakes. We started a conversation with the owner. I had brought a bag with some of my 1997 raw Menghai 7542 cake. It's the tea I was brewing in a thermos during this trip. Christopher likes this tea (even brewed in a thermos for hours!) and so we asked if the shop has something similar. He produced a red label puerh from 1997 priced above 500 USD. He didn't seem very interested in comparing it to my 7542, though. And I didn't see any place in this shop where we could have brewed these 2 teas. Since 7542 is THE reference for that era, I guess he figured his tea wouldn't be better. We left.
For our last stop, we entered this truly old and untidy tea shop. It looks more like an archeological site than a shop!
Tongs of puerh are stacked everywhere in a glorious mess! But at least it's not smelling bad. Actually, because it's winter and cold, the smell of tea isn't as intense as one would assume from such a big quantity of tea.
And this owner agreed to compare my 1997 Menghai 7542 with his own aged puerh! In the picture above, you can see how he used gaiwans for the comparison. He's an old style tea seller, very pushy, constantly talking and trying to brainwash you. His tea wasn't too bad and the storage was dry. However, side by side it lacked the thickness and smoothness of my 7542. We didn't purchase any tea, but thanked him for this brewing. We also noticed that he has stacks of new wrappers ready to wrap any cake you wish! That's another reminder of how useless wrappers are to determine the tea you're drinking...
This actual experience in Hong Kong's tea shops highlights the difficult transition of Hong Kong's traditional middleman model. Access to China isn't a sufficient selling point anymore. Top quality tea is very hard to find in a city that was used to high markups and big volumes. Luckily, I didn't loose too much time and could purchase some very good French cheeses in a nearby gourmet shop! And a little later, I spent a wonderful hour exploring the Hong Kong Maritime museum:
Tea chest with 2 pewter caddies in the Maritime Museum
Conclusion: the traditional tea businesses of Hong Kong need to adapt to new circumstances to survive. Here are some things I provide that I didn't find in these old Hong Kong tea shops:
- access to small samples of great teas that let you try a cake of puerh or an Oolong before committing to a big purchase. Going through different teas from different origins is a great way to educate your palate.
- a detailed brewing guide to learn about all details that will affect the taste of your cup of tea.
- creativity in the tea preparation process with the use of Chabu that give a mood, a meaning to each tea session.
- an Internet presence with worldwide delivery and a section with lowered prices that isn't a fast-changing commercial gimmick.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Les évolutions du thé rouge

Dian Hung sauvage du printemps 2011
Puisque le thé rouge est un thé dont les feuilles sont entièrement oxydées, il risque moins de s'oxyder avec l'âge! C'est une évidence qu'il convient de rappeler lorsque l'on s'intéresse au vieillissement de ce type de thé. C'est une grande différence avec les thés Oolongs, semi-oxydés, et les puerhs crus jeunes. Ces 2 types de thé ont des possibilités d'évolutions bien plus amples en arômes, car leurs feuilles ne sont que partiellement oxydées et ont donc bien plus loisir à changer avec le temps. 
Pour le thé rouge (hung cha), on distingue 2 temps dans le viellissement:

1. Les 3-4 premiers mois après la production. Si le thé vert est au sommet de sa forme et de sa fraicheur juste après sa production, le thé rouge demande souvent 3 à 4 mois pour se stabiliser. L'oxydation totale des feuilles, puis leur séchage, est un choc intense pour les feuilles. Certaines odeurs dégagées lors de la production mettent un certain temps à s'estomper et disparaitre. C'est une phase d'affinage indispensable pour ce type de thé, sauf à rechercher ces odeurs particulièrement fraiches d'oxdation dans les ateliers de thé. L'évolution du thé rouge durant ces 3 à 4 premiers mois est importante, surtout juste après la production.
2. Au-delà de 4 mois, on entre dans une phase de stabilité et de lente bonification. Ceci est le cas si on fait bien attention à la bonne conservation des feuilles: dans un endroit sec, frais, à l'abri de la lumière et de mauvaises odeurs. En théorie, si le thé est de qualité, ce qu'il perdra un peu en force, il le gagnera en finesse avec le temps.
Mon Dian Hong sauvage du printemps 2011 est le plus ancien thé rouge de ma sélection et un très bon exemple de cette bonification. Exceptionnel par l'origine et la qualité de ses bourgeons, c'est un thé plus plaisant et raffiné chaque année. Je l'infuse souvent en porcelaine, mais je peux aussi utiliser peu de feuilles et ma théière en argent.
Les senteurs entièrement naturelles de cassis sont de plus en plus évidentes. C'est naturellement doux, pur, et les sensations en bouche est étonnamment longue et soyeuse. Après bientôt 6 ans de conservation, c'est un thé qui continue de progresser, lentement mais sûrement, vers plus finesse et de précision. Et en hiver, quand le temps est frais, il me fait le plus grand bien!

Thursday, March 02, 2017

The numbers behind a 50 years old puerh tea


At 16 USD per gram, this 50 years old raw puerh is not expensive. It's a bargain! The main reason for this claim is the quality of the leaves. 50 years ago, China was in the midst of its 'cultural revolution'. There was no money for pesticides or fertilizers. And there were no new puerh plantations at that time. All the leaves were harvested on wild or old arbor puerh trees. And it's because of the cultural revolution that crippled the production in the factories that these leaves were never pressed.

Nowadays, fresh leaves of such quality are easily worth 1 USD per gram or more (and you often have to pay this price for a 200 gr or 357 gr cake). 

We can measure the cost of time using the compounded interest rate. To obtain 16 after 50 years, we need an interest rate of 5.7%. (The formula is:  1.057^50=16 +/-.)

This means that if you invest now in top quality puerh that is worth 1 USD and if you wait 50 years to sell it at 16 USD, your return on investment will be 5.7%. Is this a lot if you consider all the risks that exist in storing tea for 50 years? There are risks of inflation, the risk of loss through theft, misplacement, the risk of the leaves not aging well due to bad conditions. And the biggest risk is that you may not be here anymore in 50 years to enjoy the tea!

With an 8% annual return, the price of 1 gram would be 47 USD and if you are expecting 10%, then the price jumps to 117 USD! These rates are more what you'd expect for one of China's most prized tea, aged raw puerh. That's why 16 USD is really such a bargain! (And it won't last indefinitely!)
With these 2 to 3 grams, I'm able to make multiple brews, at least 1 liter (Where can you purchase a 50 year old bottle of fine wine for 50 USD?) Most importantly, this is a tea that leaves a lasting impression. The taste is both thick and light, rich and pure. It's amazingly long. The scents of old precious woods, incense and camphor are a delight. It feels so natural, clean and still full of energy. And the effects on the body are warm hands and feet! It's a relaxing spa for body and mind.

For me, it's a glimpse of paradise!