; Cwyn's Death By Tea: January 2018 ;

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

Friday, January 26, 2018

When Tea Gets Ugly, and other 2018 Puerh Predictions.


The online tea world just gets nastier every year. I look back to a couple of years ago and the conflicts in the puerh world seem warm and fuzzy by comparison to what is going on lately. We are well past the point now of joking over 1800 year old tea and all the great things puerh will do for your diabetes. What is new is a consumer backlash, in my opinion. This backlash has a number of elements, some of which have more to do with the consumer than with tea or tea vendors. The biggest factors in play right now are: 1) shift in marketing preferences by consumers; 2) increase in puerh tea prices, coupled with 3) continuing stagnant purchasing power of consumers.

Marketing Shift

For the past decade or more, tea marketing has focused on health/wellness side of tea drinking in hopes of converting coffee drinkers and selling a lifestyle image. Largely this wellness marketing focus has aimed for and appealed to financially well-off persons over the age of forty. These people are primarily responsible for the success of gyms, spas, and high tech devices. Aging always drives spending money in staying healthy and youthful, and lines the pockets of wellness gurus worldwide. Now we have a younger buying cohort who is not yet preoccupied with aging, and has less purchasing power per person and prefers lower tech living. Consequently we see gyms on the decline, and high priced tea brewing devices fail.

Along with this, the wellness marketing trope feels tired. It smacks of privilege not felt, along the lines of wishful thinking rather than reality. The consumer is aware that tea with a Zen lifestyle is not provided by hard working, benevolent vendors. These are experiences consumers create for themselves. Tea is an ingredient of experience in the daily actions of the buyer, but not the entire experience bought in one huge package.

With a more “ingredient,” nuts and bolts focus, people are impatient when they feel someone is trying to sell them an image or lifestyle when really the purchase is tea. I consistently read consumer complaints over marketing which includes “image” based tea labels, with no real information on the actual tea. This scheme is all the more obvious when accompanied with tea photos taken from a wholesaler stock catalog and the consumer recognizes the repeated usage from one vendor to another. 

The term I see more and more on tea forums is “marketing schtick.” Consumer backlash is increasing against teas sold via images or lifestyles, rather than a description of what the product is, “objectively,” origins and so forth. Consumer discussions continue for months along these lines, for example the Mei Leaf 1000 year tea discussion on Steepster. Consumers also see through the schtick of vendors who “name drop” on labels, naming conventions like “Little Bingdao” on teas that are about as close to Bingdao as Milwaukee is to Chicago. 

Online discussions stemming from a "disconnect" between vendors and consumers now get really ugly. An example of the worst might be one about a monthly tea subscription company selling lifestyle when the teas do not measure up to expectation, and consumers taking to social media to complain, resulting in threats by the vendor to sue. Even bloggers are starting to hear threats of lawsuits for negative reviews of teas, an unlikely scenario but certainly not pleasant tea meditation. Another ugly discussion continued for days over the alt online names of a tea vendor presumably anonymously self-promoting teas and bashing the competition.

All the disillusioned discussions online point to a decline or shift in social marketing of tea, with too many tea companies using social media in the exact same way. Too many tea companies focusing on image, lifestyle or boasting a guru lead inevitably to consumer weariness, whether via photos, blogs or podcasts. Tea marketing is in a sort of reductionist phase, the thing rather than the image of the thing. But we have a few more factors at play in 2018, the picture is not quite so simplistic.

Increase in (Puerh) Tea Prices

Tea is more expensive in large part because more people are demanding a premium product, and the amount of premium tea available cannot possibly meet the demand. In addition, weather plays a role in how much premium tea is available in a given year, and the past few years were affected by unusual climate events. Governmental policies such as in Taiwan have made high mountain oolong more scarce as well.

In the past four years the cost of a nice puerh tea has literally doubled, and that is not including the increases in puerh tea costs before or even after the big bubble of 2008. Ghastly price increases are coming at a bad time too, because on the one hand long-time collectors have plenty of tea and are not likely to open the wallet except for increasingly rare tea experiences, and people new to collecting are priced out before they even start. Over the past year, one of my blog posts has consistently remained in my top six “most read” posts, the post called “How Can I Afford this Hobby?”  I suspect that the people finding this post are new to puerh. They are dealing with sticker shock and want recommendations. The same can be said about oolong and many other premium teas as well. Buying premium tea is increasingly out of reach for most of us, myself included. We can still find decent budget teas, as I wrote about in that post, but decent is not the same as premium.

Continued Stagnant Purchasing Power

Premium tea was once an affordable treat, but while teas are increasing in price and scarcity, the consumer is ever more aware of how little their money buys. Crypto currency is a huge topic right now, in part because people are frustrated with how little cash they have and how little their cash can buy. I think this is the real anger in the ugliness of the tea scene. How dare vendors pitch “schtick,” lie about tea, sell lifestyle tropes, mark up prices more than 10% a year, use social marketing to find customers when the reality on the ground of the consumer is so damned painful?

Along with this pain is the realization that change is not going to happen anytime soon. The whole notion of “change” is political, and politics are more stagnant than a wet pile of shou. Consumer anger peaked over the past year or so and now people are onto what they hope are solutions, whether it is crypto currency or changing buying habits. I propose a few concepts that will be key in this year’s puerh buying.

Budget

Budget teas rumored to have good quality will sell out quick. Yes, they always sell out quick but we have more buyers now than four years ago. More people are seriously looking for decent budget teas. The high end collector side is likely to remain stable with a few people able to afford the best of the best. I believe the successful vendor to the western market will either focus on the budget end or scale back significantly and cater to a small group of high end collectors. The middle tiers will be slower to sell, especially and unless “better” drinkers are vastly different year after year, which for the most part they are not, so the middle may be the most stable price-wise, and perhaps the toughest sell.

Chinese Factory Teas

Western ignorance of the Chinese language and myths about Chinese politics favor factory teas more this year, with budget so much of a factor. People cannot read the wrappers, so they are essentially “empty” of marketing imagery for the western buyer. Even if the wrappers are all about the tired health and wellness tropes, people cannot read them. Even if the wrappers lie, anyone who cannot read Chinese will not know.

More importantly, Chinese puerh wrappers have the nostalgia factor politically. They project the old-time state owned factories with emotionless number recipes. The bland sameness of the old CNNP label suggests a society with no elites, when premium tea and bad tea shared the same wrapping. Now of course the old reality had elites, despite the “worker” philosophy. But for a customer with stagnant purchasing power, abandoned by the state, left to the mercy of corporations, essentially the customer in “capitalist” countries, a factory wrapper suggests a political change that needs to happen even if it does not. Chinese wrappers simply do not push the sore buttons, and one can find a lot of budget-friendly factory teas for under $50, full-size cakes too, not these bottle-cap sizes that we see more and more of.

More Auctions and Group Buys

The middleman is not responsible for the mess, and may carry an advantage of coordinating budget-friendly group tea buying. Personally I see this as an expensive way to buy tea in the long run, but in the short term might be the only option for folks who hope their current budget will change for the better in a few years.

Along with this, more and more people buying tea means more tuition tea, not merely bad tea. People need time to learn what they like in tea, and so the secondary market is not yet kicked in as much as it will be in a few years. More people will decide to sell teas they do not like in order to buy other teas. Right now this has not yet really started in the west, but it will and maybe 2018 is the year it really starts to increase. I bought some very good tea last year this way, and sold a few I knew I would never drink.

More Interest in Storage

Tea storage is rather low tech, as inexpensive as you like. I believe this is the real meat of the puerh hobby, and obsessing over storage rather than shopping is the healthy direction our hobby needs to go. I see more and more discussions of storage than ever before, and the ideas are grand. I applaud the failures too, because we learn more from failure in the short term than anything else. Long term storage is still anyone’s potential success story. I see far more marketing potential in storage than in lifestyle or wellness. Unfortunately I think the tea vendor world will continue marching along with the tired lifestyle stuff rather than stock up on storage solutions and custom thermoses.

Overall, I think 2018 is the year of the Testy Customer and I will be interested to see what emerges from this on the vendor end. Of course these are merely my own observations and predictions. Anything can happen and probably will.

Happy drinking!


Friday, January 19, 2018

Blind Sample Greek Puerh Tasting via Yunnan Sourcing



In November 2017, I was invited by Matt of mattchasblog to do a blind tasting of Yunnan Sourcing samples, in the manner of the old Half-Dipper blog posts where the samples are marked with Greek letters and the teas are revealed afterward. We were given a deadline of January 15, and I am a few days late in finishing up. My medications are wrecking my ability to drink puerh on many days. My gut is okay, not damaged or anything like that, but it is sensitive and I try to avoid provoking it. So I spread out the tastings and tried to get as close to the deadline as I could.

I decided to brew the teas in clay rather than the gaiwan, just for variety among the bloggers who I assumed would likely choose a porcelain gaiwan. I chose a light clay tea pot made by Inge Nielsen (Belgium) that I use for young sheng. I measured 7-8g of tea per 100/ml and ended up using less water than that for most of the teas, more like 80 ml.

Alpha


A very green tea yet.
Young. Leaves are plump and attractive. Fruity/floral, pours with some thickness, has that YS “house” taste I find in a lot of YS teas. Not much bitterness, very yin and cold. After –taste a little sour, likely needs some heat/humidity. Might be better down the line after it settles more. 

Beta


Rather good.
Young tea but with some browning, small leaves, fragrant in the pouch. Decent thickness to the pour. This tea is more to my taste with darker notes of aged oak cask along with the fruity floral. More yang than Alpha sample. Warm, autumn peppery spices going down the throat. A bit of euphoric stoner qi in the face and torso, making me want to guzzle the way Menghai tuos do. Still very sweet, warm mead, some house flavor.

Nothing burly I’d want to age but a pleasant drink for people who like brandy, cognac or spiced rum and a fuller profile in a young tea they can drink now. Hell, yeah. Wasn’t gonna binge drink but I think I will.

Gamma


Worth it for the throat feel.
Green, Menghai-ish aroma. Tippy, small plantation leaves. The sample consists of loose tea and a chunk that resembles a mini-cake. Third pour a bit thicker. Finally, we have a tea which is somewhat bitter. Some throat feel. Not bad, but nothing special.

Overall I am finding a disturbing lack of decent bitterness in the teas thus far, despite how green and young as they are.

Delta

Sidling up to the bar, can I get some puerh already? It is one of those days, life is a miserable affair and certainly not worth living and I need tea to make it all better. Days like today are why God made dirty tuos, the back alley tavern beverage of choice for the puerh snifter, this western puerh drinker, I am such a stereotype and caricature of everything I come from, preferring the heights of heaven and depths of hell even in my beverages while eschewing the mildly pleasant middle. Aristotle shakes a crooked finger at people like me, a nice way to put it, because the thinnest veneer of schooling lies between me, as I am now, and the bar brawler that nature evolved me to be.


I probably did not give this tea a fair trial,
but could not bring myself to revisit it either.
This one has dark greenish black leaves, and smells of YS house teas. First two steeps show a touch of pink amber in the yellowish brew. Very pretty. Floral/fruity reminds me of the Alpha sample. I let it sit too long cooling. The cup then tastes sour. I have not had a single lick of food touch my palate yet today. Next…

Epsilon

This sample has green/black loose leaves, no chunks. I brew up 7g/100 ml and this is almost flavorless. Pushed with 80 ml water yields a more balanced and nicely bitter result that coats the tongue and provides a fast huigan. 


Not terrible, but not memorable.
Otherwise the experience is the same one note I find in most of the other samples, a mild fruity floral, all top note. The huigan reasserts in the throat ten minutes after the last sip, so double huigan, an initial one upon sipping and then another shortly afterward. Very clean tea overall, no storage notes perhaps because the tea is still young. Despite the promising start, the tea is cashed around steep 5, the loose leaves of course will give out sooner than a chunk. The session is like a highly anticipated erotic moment that finishes all too quickly.

Zeta

This sample comes in a large mylar bag, the kind that Yunnan Sourcing once used for samples with a purchase but now buyers must pay for these. The bag contains large chunks of…shou. The shou appears to be on the young side, by the looks of it. I drink less shou now than I once did, and I prefer it older than ten years. I also use less leaf than I used to. But I will momma-up and donate the gut for today. Also, I must switch teapots from a sheng-dedicated clay and choose a thick porcelain to generate enough heat to separate the rather compressed sample.


A potent and rather tasty shou.
The tea brews up dark brown, and thicker with each steeping. I like it, this is a rather good shou, with a traditional Menghai factory flavor of soil, wood, vanilla, root beer, yeast bread, very tangy and lively. Some bitterness left shows some potential for age. This will one day get the sort of plummy flavor old shou tuos and bricks do at fifteen years, but likely to brew a lot longer. Right now the pile flavor is still very heavy in the tea. I take to the tea like a diabetic to a box of chocolates, my brain quickly forgetting any idea of caution on my gut. I feel a presence in the throat from the tea and a contented happiness flows.

Last year I bought a Year of the Goat shou cake from YS, and it is too young to drink now but I wonder if this sample is the same recipe, one of the Chinese year shous. If so, I will be happy I bought Goat. The sample is shou for days, brews a long time. I let water sit in the teapot to form a  thick cough syrup and the tea leaves are nowhere near done after six steepings, and can easily be boiled when they fade. One thing in favor of this tea, the flavor is similar to factory shou but so much more potent, a reminder to myself that Yunnan Sourcing, Crimson Lotus, or white2tea house shou puerh are a good value because the tea leaves are much stronger than traditional factory recipes, so I can use less tea and brew them longer.

Final Thoughts

A big thank you to Mattcha and also Yunnan Sourcing for the blind tasting experience.

Overall, with the exception of Beta, the sheng puerh teas have a similar flavor profile to other Yunnan Sourcing sheng puerh teas I have tasted in the past, and similar to the two or three I already own. If I intended to buy more YS sheng productions, the main factor for me is price. The year or name on the tea honestly will not matter much. I suggest to buyers looking at YS sheng productions to compare years for prices, the same teas year over year are likely to taste similar so whichever one costs less will be the best value. Beta is a tea I might consider as it stood out from the others with a fuller profile, deeper notes. The shou is good, but if it is a yearly production like Goat I will stay with what I own.  

I also am aware of personal subjective biases. These teas are clean and nice drinkers, but I want unique teas, something new or different than what I own. I already own plenty of drinkers. Nowadays I tend to look for very strong tea, either a strong burly and bitter tea, or intense mouth, throat feel, body effects, or qi. Or I am looking for storage and fine aging. This means I might not be the best person to try these teas. Someone new to puerh might offer a fresh perspective, and the teas are clean enough, and mild enough, to recommend them to anyone new to sheng puerh. 

After Note

 Since posting the above, I have now read some of the other blogger notes, and there seems to have been an expectation to either guess the region or production. I assume that many YS productions are blends, so it did not occur to me to try and guess where the leaves are from. And I am not familiar with the entire YS line, and thus not in a position to guess specific teas. Hopefully what I wrote will suffice.


Friday, January 12, 2018

Letter to a Prioress


Here is a letter I wrote to a long time nun friend. I have not written to her in some years. When I decided to write her again today, I looked her up to see where to send the letter, and found she was elected to lead her order last year. Congratulations are most certainly overdue on my part.

As always with posts of this kind, names and places are masked to avoid any potential embarrassment and I let a week go by so she will have received the letter.


1/4/2018

My very dear Rev. Mother Prioress previously known as Sister___,

Well, still known as, but it’s an opportunity to open my missive, goodness me, I haven’t written in ever so long, can’t recall how long exactly, but you walked across a dream two nights ago. I woke up and thought wow, I should really write. Google’d the address to see where you are at these days, and the news articles, so many, I really must congratulate you on your recent election! Now today, six or seven months pass since your investiture. Long enough for the newness to wear off perhaps, but not long enough to completely lose the “get me out of here.” ?? Maybe?

Nah, of course not. I saw it in you, all those years ago. But how are you, my friend? Enjoying all the meetings…

As I said, I cannot recall exactly the last time I wrote, I do remember writing back during my days as an associate (postulant) in (___), from my room where the mice ran over me at night. I kept up writing a couple of years at least, Sister B. told me to “keep it up, try and phone etc.” so I did for a time. Then I got busy with my own bunch. I also wrote to Sister M. some years longer, I do still have some letters from her, and photos, as well as the sketch I drew of her. No doubt your archives have plenty of her materials but if you need more, I can always send over what I still have. I wrote to Fr. I. until his death as well.

And speaking of archives, I took so many of my college notes using the clean back sides of paper from the to-recycle bins in the liturgy office, the start of my career as a dumpster diver. Looking through them one day I noticed the used side of many pages are sheet music, with handwritten music parts by Sister T. and Sister D., descants, flute parts, depending upon the week and the musicians they could scrounge up for Sunday, so they wrote extra parts for whatever we happened to sing. I am sure these sisters have written many more in the thirty five years since. I wonder if the parts still end up in the recycle bin for some student to rescue.

My current biography is that I am---old, hair’s gone white. I left my order some years ago, finished a doctorate, and worked for some time in clinical mental health and case management, married/divorced, cellist husband moved to Communist China, son is twenty-seven and a bassoon player, I am mostly retired with a nice pension. I write a bit, have a tea blog of all things. Fermented puerh tea, long story. I might put this letter up, names removed of course, simply because my own tale is nearly impossible and I barely believe it. Really the truth is, we grow older much the same and there is just more of everything.

I don’t know how your bunch came through the Vatican inquiry stemming from the LCWR*, I followed the news with some interest. I knew that my group would get a tough scrutiny after our own president got elected to the (___) and then the signing of the petition for national healthcare, something I’m rather proud of, but I know the heat must have been intense. I still go back for community events on occasion. The last time I went I planned to ask how the whole process turned out. But I got there and did not need to ask, I could see immediately what had gone down. One cannot miss Franciscan priests in full habit at the motherhouse, (not just collar mind you ), they somewhat stick out. What I did miss, and you can tell Sister M. this, is the music is gone. All my sisters use now are the old hymnals from the 1940s. None of the beautiful pieces by Marty Haugen etc., no instrumentals, stuff we used to play, all gone. I don’t know if this is a directive or a kind of protest, “we will sing our own music” and that’s all, I see people who can play or direct liturgy but instead everything is stripped down. Hopefully nothing like this has come to pass at St.___’s, I hope Sister T. has liturgical freedom because there is mission in it more than ever.

My order hired a futures study in the late 1980s that projected the financial needs and retirements. The findings were presented at a community meeting for discussion. I remember that the futures projections showed the numbers of sisters and in the year 2027 only one member remained, and her death projected for 2037, ten years alone at that point. That was my data point, and it shook me to the core, over the next couple of years I got to where I could no longer stay. I could not face a holocaust of hundreds, but more than that obedience is impossible in a situation where they will be gone and yet are giving me certain directions for my life which includes no retirement while also not paying into the national Social Security.

It’s not the money and I wish today were only about the buildings but we have more than a century of non-stop, round the clock adoration, and that’s the painful part, what will happen to it. Are lay members enough, and will lay members continue to join when there are no longer sisters to partner with? I’m sure some of these questions are yours as well, and you have more strength with them, perhaps, and anyway you coped with the funerals better than I did, more strength than I would have on my own. Even through the newsletters I can feel the grief, worry and fury of the few contemporaries I had then, who still remain. I feel like your monastic tradition has bedrock to lean on and monastic vocations historically continue to trickle in, but I know this is also a kind of wishful thinking when facing the realities of today for orders formed nearly two centuries ago to teach and nurse immigrant communities.

In some ways, I wish religious life had a model for essentially what I got from it, to train other young women and give a foundation. College is not really the same, especially with all the drug and alcohol use these days, and back in my day too. I suppose if someone is seeking what religious life has to offer, even as a lay person, it’s all there for those who look even without needing to join. But hundreds of years ago, for young women and older women as I am now, religious life was an option for a time, not necessarily for all time. I wish it for so many women, I do not know now what I would be without it, well, I do know, either crazy or a drug addict, or both. Instead I am strong and mostly sane.

The year I left I took a job as a pastoral associate at a parish with extra building space, and a sister named D. had an office in this building to work on a diocesan project. Now I am sure her name is familiar, I thought of her when I read today that St.___ Priory was assumed a few years ago. That same year I signed my papers to leave, D. was in her exclaustration* year. She was one of the greatest gifts of friendship, we were both dealing with the same issues then, and we could talk and talk. I kept in touch with her until her death a few years back, used to call her once in awhile. What a dear lady, she talked as much as one could and still be monastic. I think we both saw a similar future, I wonder if she wanted and perhaps needed something like what the Madison priory is now, but twenty years before it came to fruition. I know she got to a fully ecumenical* place before the shame of such a view disappeared. Now it’s rather fashionable, D. was way ahead in her thinking. But I know she also had a huge self honesty as to what is incompatible with today’s reality, and how or where she departed from monasticism and took responsibility for her own stuff, as it were.

I remember reading when Father P. died in a car accident in 1999, he was cousin to my associate (postulant) director and visited our convent house once, the one where the mice ran over me in bed and where I wrote to you. He stayed with us after a trip to Australia, brought us a nice box of huge apricots coated in chocolate, never tasted the like since, they were as large as my hand. All the news of St.--- over the years pained me so much, shook me really, larger church issues too.

Okay I have to ask. Do you get those weird looks, are people treating you differently now? You walk down the halls and previously no one paid you much mind, maybe a nod etc. because you were one of the young ones, and now has anything changed? Because you did not get a mask or costume for the job, something you can wear and then pull the mask and go “Boo!” to remind them you are still you and not a hallowed idea. Well you are a hallowed idea.

I remember when my cousin was about to be elected and she served two terms as president, I had a difficult time with it. Mainly because I felt I was part of a circle of a number of the leaders, and it was not inappropriate and probably part of the training, but it was enough that others felt left out, and that made it a little wrong. An in-group, not bad but just a step in towards exclusion, the kind we cannot have and it destroys community in small ways because issues that were only conversation might become policy. I had differences in historical perspective too, because I wasn’t alive when Kennedy was shot, so I definitely felt the in-group keenly and someone warned me too, probably not soon enough.

My cousin left shortly after I did and moved to New Mexico. You probably remember my sister A., she lives in Milwaukee. She has traveled a great deal in her life as I figured she would. Her health is not the best, she has some immunity and thyroid stuff and remains fragile but still she sparkles.

Well now I am certain you have better things to do than continue to read a letter that goes on and on. My best to you and everyone at St.___, in my mind I can still sit in your chapel any time I wish to go there as a mental traveler, and I do, so if you see me, wave.

Fondly,


C.

*LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious)

*exclaustration: a one-year of separation required for perpetually vowed nuns prior to leaving their order permanently.

*ecumenical: a view embracing commonalities among religions rather than differences.