; Cwyn's Death By Tea: December 2017 ;

The Very Limited T-Shirt for Cwyn's Tea Fund

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

What a Puerh Lover Learns from a Fruitcake



This year I decided to bake a fruitcake. I have made fruitcakes before, and even have a recipe I developed back in my vegan days using beans. For this year’s fruitcake, however, I wanted to make a rather boozy version along the lines of a fruitcake I picked up during a trip to the UK a few years ago, what was called a “Christmas cake” with frosting. This cake tasted very unlike the fruitcakes I avoid here in the States. 

Many Americans dislike fruitcakes, mainly because of mass production of this confection in the mid-twentieth century with nuclear green candied fruit. I learned from my English fruitcake that many US mass produced versions are mistakes, but what I did not know until this year is that a quality fruitcake "matures" in a rather similar fashion to our puerh cakes. That is, if looked after properly, a fruitcake and puerh over time will develop sought-after complex flavors.

For my fruitcake, I hoped to use up much of the dried fruit accumulated in my kitchen cupboards over many years. Alas, one large fruitcake made only a small dent in the number of packages of prunes, apricots, dried cranberries, figs and the like that somehow ended up in my house. Where did all this dried fruit come from? I like dried fruit, but really! Apparently I do not eat any of it, and neither does anyone else in the house. I guess I ate it to stay regular, but now in recent years I need only brew up a drain cleaner puerh for this purpose. 

Fruitcakes are part of my family history. My aunt Alvina baked fruitcakes every year. She developed a family tradition during World War II when my uncle Leonard fought as an infantry soldier. Aunt Alvina sent him care packages at Christmas time with fruitcakes and frosted cookies packed into a huge box full of plain popped popcorn. The box arrived with most of the cookies broken, but the popcorn and broken cookies eaten together were a huge hit with my uncle’s infantry unit. So Alvina continued mailing out Christmas boxes to her brothers, my father included. Dad was the only one in my family who ate the fruitcakes. They remained in the refrigerator wrapped in tin foil well into the following summer (I found out the tin foil actually has a rationale for maturing fruitcakes). 

I remember asking my dad one July whether I should toss the leftover fruitcake.

“No, no don’t throw that out, it is still good.” 

He’d hack off a chunk, eating it in front of me to show he still planned to finish the cake. One could never be certain of food facts from my father. This was a guy who ate lettuce and pasta out of the sink drain, and saved soups in pots out in the garage for weeks.  

So really, in terms of fruitcake knowledge, I am on my own here. Although I have plenty of fruitcake recipes in my kitchen already, I am intrigued by a BBC recipe. Sort of following the recipe, I cook up prunes, apricots, cranberries and figs into spiced rum (I am not a brandy fan) and then fold them into the cake portion of the recipe. I did not have fresh lemons, so I use a chopped preserved lemon. I cannot bother to go buy one orange just for the zest, so I toss in some fruit punch instead. I slow bake the lot in the oven and the cake turns out all right.

My fruitcake
Now, this is when the OCD kicks in. I have some notion that a fruitcake needs to mature with some alcohol in it, but not much idea of how to do this because all the fruitcakes of my past were ready to eat. How much booze do I use? How often should I add some to the cake? Do I just pour it on, or brush it on? How long should the cake sit, weeks or months? I turn to the internet for information.

Let me tell you that every single fruitcake article on the internet for the past seven years is repetitive and blatantly plagiarized from the same sources without attribution. I am ashamed at all the blog posts I read on fruitcakes that repeat the same tropes over and over as if they are original to the author. A typical fruitcake article has the following:

--a trope on ancient Roman fruitcakes
--a trope on Filipino fruitcakes
--a Johnny Carson joke
--a Jay Leno joke
--a trope on American fruitcake nuclear green tutti frutti (even I repeat that one here)
--the American designated day for fruitcake toss games.
--the 106 year old fruitcake found in Antarctica, still edible.

Finding useful and apparently obscure information on “maturing” fruitcakes takes no fewer than eight pages into a Google Search, and I ended up scouring more than twenty search pages.

So, a fruitcake “matures” over time with periodic “feedings” of booze. The skins of the fruits break down, releasing the tannins. The flavors of the tannins reduce the sugary sweetness, balancing it out and creating flavor nuances. In this sense, fruitcakes are more akin to wine maturation than puerh fermentation.

97 year old Australian fruitcake. It's still good.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/tusnelda/11373152845/
A fruitcake does not mold, or should not mold, assuming the cake has a much higher proportion of fruit to cake. One reason the cake should not mold is the amount of alcohol which is preserved by wrapping the cake up in layers of plastic and tin foil. If the cake is to be kept for long term, people wrap the cake in muslin soaked with booze, and then cover the thing in plastic and tin foil. Another reason the cake does not mold is because of the high sugar content. Apparently, sugars are resistant to molds, the butter and flour are susceptible to mold rather than the sugars.

A light bulb goes on in my head. Over time, puerh tea breaks down its cell walls to release the bitter juices which are converted to sugar via Rhizopus yeast which uses carbons from bacteria as food. As the tea sweetens with more and more plant sugars, the molds present in the tea decline over time until they die off at the end of decades of fermentation. A fully fermented puerh tea should have almost no bacteria or mold, because these are consumed by fermentation and replaced by plant sugars. Thus the puerh tea is safe to drink, and sweet rather than bitter.

I learned more about the nature of sugars in fruitcakes. Apparently, sugars with their crystalline structure are very hard, and hold water. If the fruitcake is appropriately moist, the structure of the sugars is loosened. But if the fruitcake dries out, the sugars want to return to hard crystals. Should a fruitcake dry out and harden, the sugars in their crystalline structure can be induced to release water and return to a moist state. To do this, one can heat the fruitcake in a dry low heat oven.

😲

Wait...so, a dry, hard fruitcake actually returns to a moist fruitcake by heating in an oven, without adding more moisture? Apparently so, and this is because the sugars are holding the moisture.

I start to think about the overly-humid stored puerh cakes that get dried out like old autumn leaves. Of course vegetal matter has simple sugars, whereas a tighter sucrose sugar has an extra carbon and a more complex crystalline structure that holds water molecules. I did add about ¾ cup dark brown sugar to my fruitcake. 

But I wonder if added heat does more to reconstitute a dried out puerh cake than added humidity. Not to mention the musty mildew odor that can disappear with added heat. I have that dried out humid eBay fake tea donation from July…should’ve thrown it away, but didn’t. 

eBay Fake, from this post
Into the oven it goes.

I am not expecting this tea to turn into something miraculous, it is a health hazard more than anything else. However, I am curious to find out what changes, if anything, after an oven-bake. To reconstitute a fruitcake, a scientist recommends 140F (60C) for 10 minutes. I have a small oven to use (no way am I gonna fire up my expensive gas oven for a piece of crap) that has a lowest temp of 150F (65C), but tends to the cold side when using it for cooking. Close enough.

A rack seems like a good idea.
After ten minutes of bake time, I get a wafting odor of basement from the oven. I went twelve minutes, doubting whether this is enough time for the heat to completely penetrate the tea cake. Come to think of it, a dried out fruitcake is likely equally dense if not more so. I am going to try the outer leaves anyway, not the innards. I fire up the kettle.

Oven view.
The tea does not look any different in appearance after the oven, so I did not take another photo. As for my previous testing of this tea, I used 8g and the same Yixing pot. I threw away the first three rinses as before. I still smell some mildew basement in the Yixing, but much less than I remember.

Could be worse...
The brew is light and actually sweet. Not that unpleasant really. I still feel just a slight tongue numbing but if I can get past that, the tea is still a bit lively. Now the wet storage is at more of a perfect level: when a wetter stored tea has one part woodiness and one part humidity, to me that is just the right touch. 

I cannot discern whether the tea is actually made sweeter by the heating, or if the basement humidity is reduced enough to taste the sweetness which was already in the tea, but previously obscured. I do not recall seeing green in the leaves the last time, but perhaps I did not look closely enough in the sunlight to see. Maybe the cake is not quite dead.

I notice now the leaves still have some green.
One thing is certain to me now. If I have a tea with storage that I feel is a bit too much, I will definitely put the tea in the oven for ten minutes. After all, most rather wet teas are on the less expensive side, so I am not potentially risking a very fine tea. I will also consider the idea of using the oven to reduce any accidental white fuzz on tea. In fact, if tea is not yet a loss I might rehabilitate an experiment “gone too far” by oven heating. At such a low oven temp, I am not risking burning the tea. 

So, what did I learn from fruitcake that I can apply to tea? A fruitcake is actually more akin to wine, but has a maturation process fed by moisture. High sugar content and alcohol inhibit mold, and once tannins are released from the fruit, a complex balance of flavors emerge. This too happens with aged puerh as it converts bitter tannic juices to sugars. Those of us with a craving for complexity might find a fruitcake hobby satisfying, and certainly more rewarding in the short term as we wait years for our tea to mature. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Puerh Rescue Dot Org

As we approach the end of 2017, now is the time to turn to the dark side of collecting and storing puerh tea and ask for your aid, dear friends. During this holiday season I cannot help but think of all the neglected, harassed and abused puerh tea in the world. A problem of this proportion surely merits the full-time attention of dedicated volunteers, and I am here to be just that: a volunteer on behalf of the silently suffering puerh teas at the mercy of abusive owners.

The real nature of this problem is hardly exposed at all to date. In fact, most discussions are so careful to avoid offending others that abusers go free amongst most well-meaning puerh tea forums. People are quick to jump on anyone viewed as too “aggressive” or “direct.” In this type of passive tea audience, puerh tea suffers abuses of all kinds every single day. Let us look at some of abuses going on right now.

Adopt-A-Pu
Neglect

A puerh tea is a living thing, and it has feelings. How would you feel left to dry and suffer in a too-cold and too-dry environment? Or overheated and literally composting, unable to breathe, in conditions too hot, too stifling and without air or water? Everywhere teas are left to slowly die in cardboard boxes and paper bags. All of these things are happening on a daily basis around the world by abusers out of sheer neglect.

Harassment

Verbal abuse toward puerh tea is all too common. Factory teas are insulted constantly by comparison to so-called “boutique teas.” Profiling is rife amongst harassers. The very nature of factory teas is insulted with words like “chopped,” “funky, “charred” or “smoky” even when puerh tea cannot possibly smoke! I have even heard factory tea called “too highly compressed” of all things, when everyone knows most puerh teas when treated appropriately and with respect in the storage workplace turn out just fine, and even become valuable teas fifty years on.

Boutique teas are also subject to inappropriate and humiliating harassment every single day. Common aggressive insults like “blended,”or “single estate” insult the very hometowns these teas come from. The worst insults relate to a puerh’s color, a quality it perhaps cannot help, with derogatory terms like “purple tea,” and “oolonged.” Can you imagine a human being referred to as “oolonged?” Well then, imagine how the tea feels.

Groping

This almost unmentionable behavior is when people handle puerh teas with rough, dirty hands, tearing off the wrapper and assaulting the tea. Naked teas are humiliated every day in tea social circles where they are mercilessly unwrapped, passed around, wo/manhandled, and sniffed by everyone in a tea group. This is called social groping and group abuse. Can you believe these people do all these things just to show off, or to take a photograph? Gropers showcase naked puerh for no better reason than to get little heart “likes” on places like Facebook and Instagram. They pick at the leaves and stick their noses in and pick at the beeng hole. They call it "tea porn."

Puerh tea exposed just
for the sake of a photo.
Teas that need airing and rescue might for a brief moment benefit from unwrapping, such as to change out a dirty wrapper. But these people are not changing a dirty wrapper. They put that same wrapper right back on. Then they wedge the tea into a tight, dark space with other teas, packed in like refugees in an enclosed truck bed.

Physical abuse

Now this is the worst of all and I can only begin to imagine all the scenarios. Right off the top, I bravely try to picture things like physically damaging living tea with a sharp knife and destroying the integrity of the leaves. Or brewing the tea in too-cold water where the flavors cannot and will not emerge and leave themselves in the mouth for very long afterwards, a practice so “objectively” bad it deserves a full treatise on its own. How can we treat puerh tea this way? Yet abusers do exactly this.

Humping emoji commonly
used on sexy puerh tea chat.
Then we have people conducting experiments upon tea, set to destroy it with mold or kill it on purpose or scent it with chicken curry by leaving it in the kitchen. They keep tea under or even IN their beds! They actually have pets like cats and dogs and mice and ferrets that leave odors and hairs everywhere, even fleas to get into the tea left in open areas for animal waste to prey upon. Filthy, filthy people and the things they do to their teas.

A Call to Action

I get harassed by folks who say I go on and on in my blog posts, but I am a big girl with a huge degree so I am willing to do something. We need to expose puerh neglect and abusers. More importantly, we need to rescue neglected, abandoned and abused puerh teas.

To this end we will organize lists of Adoptable Teas. If you know of any teas that need rescue and adoption, use the Contact Form near the top of this blog, or contact TeaDB.org with your tax-free, deductible donation and anonymous information. Send us these teas and we will make sure they get rehabilitation and find new “forever” homes.

The take-away here is we need to remember puerh tea has feelings too. I hope you spread the word far and wide, hashtag #MyTeaToo

Adoptable Teas

Currently None.



Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Little Bit of Dayi

Recently at the Black Friday sale I picked up a 2016 Menghai “Yun Shui Zhen” from Yunnan Sourcing’s US shop. With the BF sale, I paid $31 instead of $36 for this 357g “throat feel” tea. Mr. Wilson writes that this is one of the few Dayi teas he feels “excited” about, a quite surprising description. Unless you enjoy your tea bitter (well I do), Dayi teas are not good to drink young, and at this price point most of them are harsh at best.

2016 Menghai Tea Factory Yun Shui Zhen
I am going a cautious 5g/100ml water to give this a try. Some of the tea had flaked off the edge so I pick off a few small chunks to accompany the loose stuff in the wrapper. The cake is firm, machine pressed, so I end up getting tea all over my kitchen counter in the process of chipping. Two rinses open up the usual Dayi “house” scent, but not as strongly as in teas like the more pungent 7542 recipe. With boiling water, the tea hedges on too bitter to drink, but backing off to just under boiling temps with my light tea/water ratio, the bitterness is just under control.


Even though this is last year’s production, the tea is still clearly green in the cup and has not fully settled. No doubt the machine pressing and Oregon storage keep the tea fresher than might be the case if ordered from China. I drink four steepings and note the usual Dayi house flavor but somewhat muted, and the tea is surprisingly thick and oily. The mouthfeel is creamy, and the brew lingers quite nicely in the throat with the promised yun and stretches its legs down into the stomach. The tea tastes a bit fruity on top of freshly-cut hay.


I sweat profusely after the first four cups, and note some qi around my ears, and I suppose I am little tea drunk because I found myself listening to campy 1990s music on YouTube. This Dayi is all about the throat and mouth coat, however, and not a heavy hitter like so many other productions, fully yin because I shiver with cold once the sweats die down. A cold yin is a big reason why people tell you not to drink young factory tea.

Some nice leaf here.
Later during the night I sneak another cup or two. This is a darn nice little tea. After six steepings, the Dayi house flavor fades and I get a bit of grape that better teas usually have in early steepings, along with some honey. The tea easily goes nine brews with thirty second steep times at the end. If I had used a more typical ratio of 8g/100ml, I am certain a session could go twelve steepings easily. The leaves are clearly from younger trees, but with respectable integrity considering my fiasco at chipping off a chunk.

Still a bit green tea-ish
The 2016 Yun Shui Zhen is a better than average factory tea for people who are new to Taetea and want to recognize their house flavor. For this $36 price point one cannot find many teas that also instruct us in yun, that throat feel we all look for in more premium teas, along with a decent mouth coat. Just go easy on the ratio to keep the bitterness at bay. I can see myself tong-ing this, but with only nine cakes left on the US site, maybe someone else in the US wants to pick one up to take advantage of local shipping.

Using a light clay teapot, such as this one
by Inge Nielsen, takes the edge off
a harsh new factory tea.
Collectors or storage people might want to look at this year’s 7542. I recently read a follower comment on one of Wilson Lim’s IG posts, noting that Korean puerh drinkers are discussing the 2017 7542 as more pungent than in recent years. A rather curious observation and worth keeping in mind as well.

Some darn nice leaf here for the price!