Thursday, February 08, 2007

Steep Learning Curve

The Boston area is wonderful in all ways, from relaxed pace and intellectual humility to simplicity of street navigation and mild, predictable weather. Since that little event in 1773, however, we’re a little short on purveyors of Camellia sinensis leaf and brew. And while tea-shops are starting to compete with cafés, it’s not so easy to find a great restaurant that pairs fine food with fine... tea. We won’t even allude to stale bags floating on lukewarm dilute coffee, or lesser nightmares of the bereft aficionado. A delightful exception is Royal East, at 782 Main St. in Cambridge, MA. But you have to ask.

Royal East is situated between the original Necco Wafer plant and the place from which Bell made his first long-distance call (all the way to Boston). I've been enjoying their signature suan la chow show since doors opened twenty years ago, next door to a Polaroid R&D lab (previously the Perfection Brassiere factory) in the dynamic, multi-ethnic MIT neighborhood and convenient to Central and Kendall stops on the Red Line subway. Later, it became one of few venues mutually agreeable to the disparate tastes of my family during our occasional reunions. Inside it is quietly pleasant in setting and decor, and frequented by the good, the great and the rest of us. Lunching there recently with a British partner at an international consulting firm, I was treated to an exegesis on how this great company has prospered in applying the theories of a B-School luminary from up-river. As we made to leave, my friend noticed this same author chowing down two tables behind us. It’s that kind of place: where the Powers That Be can rest their mantles in subservience to company and cuisine.

Over these many years, I came to know owner/founder Otto Chang casually by name and face. But we never got into matters of religion until recently.

A few months back, dining there with a former classmate now teaching legitimate journalism in Iowa, I asked about the ranks of well-seasoned Yixing pots, metal leaf canisters, “tea oceans” and other implements of mass infusion arrayed about the bar. Otto said that he's equipped for serious tea tasting, but declines to put this offering on the menu. Americans get upset at having to pay for high-quality tea, people find the classic Chinese styles odd, etc. He apparently serves the good stuff regularly to a few knowledgeable customers, but won't push it. I offered one day to bring some of my own favorite leaves if he'd share a cup, and he accepted.

Soon after, I had the pleasure of visiting Royal East with our host Corax, classicist at a mid-western university, in town to convene on philology and commune over food. Otto kindly agreed to come in before the dinner rush to meet us. Corax and I arrived early and lunched on a very nice trio of spicy pork with peanuts, garlic beef and baby bok choy with whole fried garlic cloves. (This sort of meal requires consensus or an al-fresco setting.) Waving off the usual pitcher, we solicited a pot of hot water and threw in a chunk of 2001 YiWu Zhen Shan wild tree shu Pu-erh, which made a nice balance for the strong and varied food flavors. This decided me never to go to a Chinese restaurant again without my own tea—life's too short. (Shu Pu-erh is a “true black” tea quite distinct from the more familiar green, red and oolong. Native to Yunnan and ascended from the sweaty horse-load cakes of the Silk Road, it is double-fermented and with a live culture. For an insightful description, see

Otto arrived as we were plowing into this bounty. He complimented our tea with graciousness that evolved into a smile as sniff came to sip and swallow, then returned with a 20-year-old cake of his own. After a couple of steeps of this in a porcelain pot, we offered a new-season Long Jing. (In English, “Dragon Well”—one of the great named teas of China. A delicate green with a peak life of just weeks even when well handled, this was the real West Lake article, with the exquisite shape consequent to picking just one young leaf and bud—say, 10,000 plucks to the pound—and wok-firing with delicate massage to flatten each leaf. Just the whistle-wet for lark’s tongues in aspic.) He admired the tea's freshness and form, then produced a package of his own, just received from Hong Kong. The yellow nectar it yielded was a light, refreshing counter to the two black Pu-erhs.

At this point, we'd consumed most of the victuals, so Otto had the table cleared and brought out full Gong-fu regalia. (Same term as the martial art, renderable as “skillful means.” Gong-fu is a variably elaborate ritual which, with formality dropped, is the best possible way to summit the flavor potential of almost any tea. Easily understood, but best learned experientially from a practitioner. Since it’s based on a pot entirely filled with leaves, timing and temperature control are critical to keep nectar from devolving into paint-stripper.)

Since his own favorite tipple is Tie Kuan Yin (“Iron Goddess of Mercy”—another of the great names, this one a tightly balled oolong, appearing green but with a more flowery nose), we were offered a rarefied example that he'd just had sent from a family friend's plantation in the old country. With this he brought a couple of exquisite books on master tea pots and tea-making from his considerable collection. Over the next few steeps, we were treated to insight and humorous anecdotes on the China’s artisanal teapot production system, including an encounter with one master-turned-factory-manager who had interviewed Otto three times before deigning to sell his own pieces.

After that, we compared two very different Dan Cong (“Single Bush”) oolongs. Selectively picked, sometimes from ancient bushes, these tend to be rolled into long needles which yield an astonishingly floral aroma and honeyed taste. For a refreshingly bitter end, we then downed two chartreuse rounds of a powerful Drum Mountain Clouds & Mist. The latter term applies to high-rock plantings; because they are well drained yet consistently bathed in moist air, the tea develops a unique savor.

By this time, Otto was waxing peckish, so Corax and I were forced by politeness to endure a second exquisite lunch of braised pork and “hollow vegetable” plus steamed pea tendrils and cold chicken with an aromatic dressing of freshly chopped ginger and scallions. The fowl bears special mention: cold boiled chicken on a bare plate looked pretty dull. But one assumes that the boss of the best Chinese restaurant around gets OK treatment from his staff, and in fact the bird was extraordinary: cooked perfectly, and with about thrice the flavor of any other chicken I've tasted. Turns out that for this dish—like many wonders not on the menu (always worth asking a waiter about specials)—he sources unusual ingredients, here fowl of a rare French strain. (But to strain the rara avis metaphor yet further, he said that we should call ahead next time for double-steamed black chicken, an even more obscure subspecies with white feathers and shaded skin, like unto a polar bear. Who knew?)

While I covetously eyed the well-seasoned pots, Corax collected Chinese names with Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations for tea species, equipment, procedures and ethereal attitudes with the meticulous care of a gastronomic philologist. Then we made our goodbyes. Two lunches and seven varieties of tea in multiple steepings seemed a bit restrained for two gourmands aspiring to obesity, so we staggered down the block to make sure that Toscanini's still has the world's best cocoa-pudding ice cream. Corax, ever the traditionalist, is holding out for gelato at some little shop in Rome. So we'll just have to take the contest to the Colosseum, which has seen its share.

There may be two salient lessons here. One is that there is great tea, tea service and tea conversation available in (great) restaurants. But as the Tao Te Ching informs us, Those who serve don’t say, and the tea that can be spoken of is not always the true tea. The other is that despite a long relationship with this fine establishment and its owner, my reception and experience there have experienced a step-change upward as a result of asking about tea. A salutary event indeed. May such fortune be yours soon and often.


I Am Buying Aged Pu’er

[[EDITOR'S NOTE: this piece by our own geraldo was originally posted to on 13 february 2006. it is reposted here by the author's permission.]]

Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
-- Shakespeare, The Tempest

For two years I’ve been buying pu’er manufactured between 1999 and 2005. I’ve tried to create a library of pu’er representative of most of the period’s pu’er genres: fang cha, zhuan cha, tuo cha, beeng cha, jincha, loose, fa cai, tuan cha, qian liang cha, zhu qiao cha, mao cha, tael cha, liu an, liu bao, and others—both cooked (shu) and uncooked (sheng). I am a private collector, and my small, personal pu’er collection is not deep, but I suppose it is wide.

Basically, I realize I have seven different collections of pu’er. One is the batch that fills two small baskets in my kitchen. It comprises the pu’er I am drinking now and going to finish soon, both sheng and shu. I brew these in fairly large pots without too much fuss or bother and pour them into large cups.

A second is my collection of open cakes. These I keep wrapped in archival tissue in archival file folders in archival filing cabinets. Some are almost entire bricks and beeng chas; others are just a few grams in weight. I file them alphabetically by their common names, and I keep track of them with a spreadsheet. Mostly these open cakes were manufactured between 2003 and 2005.

My third collection is a mixed, eclectic group of pu’ers. A year ago, several Asian pu’er vendors and pen pals told me they sometimes flake a pu’er cake into a canister or cardboard box. They believe that pu’er will age perhaps three times faster stored this way. They readily concede the end result will not match the quality of a good pu’er carefully aged to its maturity in its original compressed state. But for their own drinking, to hurry things along a little, they do resort to this flaked-aging process. Following suit, I flaked several beeng chas and bricks into canisters and boxes, and I will store them for six years. It’s an experiment, and I’m one year into it now. In the flaked basket, I also keep my one-offs: a small collection of beeng chas and tuo chas that I bought singly or that friends gave me. These are single cakes that for some reason I cannot imagine breaking yet.

My fourth collection resides at my office at the campus where I work. These compressed tea cakes are my own forays into a version of homemade pu’er. I’ve stuffed one or two pomelos, grapefruits, tangerines, and mandarin oranges with various oolongs and loose cooked pu’ers, steamed them, and trussed them like roasting chickens. They hang from the bookshelves, little shrunken heads. I’ll age them for a year, and that year will conclude in eight months. These particular odd experiments in tea-stuffed fruits reside away from my house because I fear they might fall prey to a mold that I would not want spreading to my other pu’ers.

Shu pu’er comprises my fifth collection. Overall, I do not love shu to the same fanatical extent that I love sheng. I do, however, require a vacation now and again from the uncooked pu’er I prefer, and shu is often very welcome late in the night when I want to unwind. It’s not a big collection by any means, and it lives segregated from my sheng so that its bouquet will not contaminate the bouquet of the aging green pu’er. I will let these cooked cakes age and mellow a little for five years.

The sixth I refer to as “The Collection.” Here I store groups of as many as eight compressed cakes of the same production. I do not open these cakes. They are in it with me for the long haul—which in my case is fifteen years, tops. If I were a young, energetic, and feckless forty, I could buy new cakes, hope to age them twenty-five years, and then drink and share them commencing on my sixty-fifth birthday. But I’m on the wrong side of fifty. Given my health history and family genes, I cannot wait around holding my breath and tapping my foot until I’m seventy-five. To the extent possible, I’ve tried to purchase three- and four-year-old cakes for The Collection. While The Collection is not vast by any stretch of the imagination, I am nevertheless running out of room to store it. When I’m sixty-five, the majority of The Collection will be seventeen years old.

Let’s face it: pu’er aged seventeen years is better than pu’er produced this year. And here’s another fact: for the most part, the flavor of an authentic, dry-storaged, aged pu’er cake produced thirty years ago and lovingly matured is at least a parsec beyond the flavor any seventeen-year-old compressed cake. When my pu’er in The Collection reaches thirty years of age, I’ll be pushing up chrysanthemums. I’ve talked to my nieces about The Collection. I’ve tried to tell them about pu’er. I’ve even given them pu’er to taste when they visit from Iowa and Illinois. They are polite enough. They smile and nod at appropriate moments when I suggest that someday The Collection, or even just little bits of The Collection, might be of some financial value. But I can tell they are, bottom-line, not too interested.

I’ve imagined that when I’m dead, whoever will be here—no matter what my last will and testament dictates, will say (mere hours after the modest funeral), “What are we going to do with all this old tea stuff Uncle Gerry piled up in here? Jeez, from the looks of it, those things must have been sitting around in here for at least twenty years.”

The other will shrug and say, “I dunno. Do you remember how he always tried to lecture us about it? He was sure an odd duck, wasn’t he?”

“You don’t wanna store all these boxes at your place, do you?”

“Hell no! Do you?”

“No way. Can you think of anybody who’d buy this stuff from us?”

“Nope. Let’s just toss it. I heard he had some gold coins in his safe deposit box. Where do you suppose he kept the key? Oh—and we gotta take his cats to the shelter.”

So it goes. An uncle’s treasure is trash for the niece. On that account and because of limited space for storing it all, my purchasing of young pu’er has slowed dramatically. I do not want to collect more tea that might just end up tossed and will certainly be consumed (if it is consumed) by a bunch of strangers who will kibitz over my selection process. I’ve undertaken a new journey. I am buying aged pu’er.

Many of you who read this little essay will know about aged pu’er. But I’ll show this piece to some non-tea-ists, too, including my nieces, who might not quite understand the attraction of tea that’s been composted, smashed flat, wrapped in tissue, and left to ferment and go all strange for three decades or more.

I grew up on a big horse spread in central Iowa along the Des Moines River. The valleys were heavily wooded with old deciduous trees, and there were high sandstone and limestone bluffs along the ravines. The soil there was black and rich. We had two wells, both witched. One well had an electric pump in a pump house, and we used the water from it to supply the horse stock and for domestic water to the house. The other well set back in an aspen grove behind the day lilies and orchard. It was capped by ancient, rough-hewn timbers and surmounted by a venerable, cast-iron pump, the kind with a big, pendulous handle. I remember how long the water took to reach the spigot at the hydrant’s mouth. I remember, too, the clatter and squeak and squeal and gurgle as I drew the sweet artesian water up through the layers of limestone, sandstone, and yellow caliche clay. I remember the aroma of the aspen bark, the oak and beechnut leaves, the acorns and walnuts scattered about, the iron from the pipes and the pump, the water itself, and I remember the flavor of that water on a sweltering day in mid-August. Of course, you know where I’m heading with this childhood recollection.

My mother is in her eighties. I call her TeaMumsy, the Old Norwegian. She lives next door. We drink pu’er together and argue about politics. When The Collection comes of age in thirty years, TeaMumsy might not have much of an interest in pu’er any more. For that matter, neither will I. So yesterday I carefully measured three point three-three grams of some pu’er that sprang to birth back in the seventies. The Meng Hai factory manufactured this pu’er, and it used the famous old recipe #7532. I brewed this little bit of tea in a three-ounce porcelain cebei. Over the course of the afternoon and evening, I infused it thirteen times. Okay, readers: care to guess what this tea tasted like? It tasted like that old Iowa pump’s artesian water levered up out of the ground in the woods on a hot August afternoon. I don’t know what price you’d pay for that experience—to be rocketed back thirty-five years to another much-loved world, and to let the actual bouquet and flavors chant that message over the decades. I know what I paid for a day of sublime enjoyment with the Old Norwegian. I paid just shy of eight bucks, and I was happy to spend it. TeaMumsy was happy to drink it.

I share all of my aged tea with her. I ask her always, “What does it taste like? What’s out there in the world that the flavor and aroma of this tea brings to mind? Leather? Plum? Wood? Camphor? Loam? Cocoa? Wine?” As we sip aged pu’er, we explore and share the world of our present senses and our best memories. She tells stories as she sips her tea. Our time is golden.

Young sheng is no tea for wimps and pantywaists. It can be astringent, sour, cigary, and strong beyond my ability to describe—and that’s if it’s good and worth aging. Sometimes I wonder if it will dissolve the enamel on my teeth. Aficionados and connoisseurs must acquire a taste for young sheng. Young sheng can be had direct from China via Internet purveyors for no great expense. There is, of course, some variation in prices depending upon the fame of the factory and the quality of the leaf. A 357-gram beeng cha manufactured this year can cost between six and thirty dollars. For a like-sized beeng cha from the Meng Hai factory, one compressed back in the seventies, serious tea collectors will cough up more than nine-hundred bucks, and that’s cheap compared to the cost of truly famous and truly old beeng chas.

Time works its strange magic on all of creation, and from this it does not exclude pu’er. Whereas my value, my cats’ value, my car’s value, and my writing’s value can only decrease over the years, pu’er’s obviously improves. This transmutation, though miraculous, is not fast. No, it is slow. Aged pu’er is rare. How many people at age eighteen will think sufficiently of the future to start collecting young sheng? And how many people of that age, as they move about through the tumult of their early decades, can hang onto a bulky collection of tea? How many can keep it safe from flood and from fire and from freezing? How many can safeguard it during cultural and military revolution? The price of aged pu’er, then, reflects its rarity. Further, literally millions of people feel convinced that drinking aged pu’er will add years to their lives. Add to that the fantastic experience of actually consuming it, and we find ourselves in the presence of an expensive commodity.

Four months ago in China I met an old teamaster, the tea-teacher of some friends. In honor of my visit, he unlocked his trove and shared hundred-tael tea in excess of eighty years in age and beeng chas in excess of forty. To our amazement and delight, he drew forth and brewed one aged pu’er after another. The experience was nigh unto religious. Prior to my journey, I had (through the help of my pen pals) tasted perhaps six authentic samples of aged pu’er. Since my return from China, I’ve tried maybe four or five. All told, I may have tried as many as fifteen samples of authentic aged pu’er. In the world of pu’er, I’m a dewy-eyed novice.

As a novice, of course, I am ripe for the plucking. Unscrupulous frauds and thieves jostle for an opportunity to deprive me of my precious dollars. I have been cheated, both purposefully and accidentally, and it will happen again. Counterfeits are ubiquitous. In the mysterious world of aged pu’er, the unwary are not simply shorn—they’re skinned. Fake cakes are re-wrapped in authentic wrappers. Young cakes are speed-aged through wet storage. Tricks and scams abound. And even if we find ourselves in possession of the real McCoy, the hype and hustle of the modern tea industry and the grasping avarice of the richest collectors have propelled the costs of a bit of tea to astronomical heights. Want to pay more than three-hundred U.S. dollars for a tiny pot of tea? No problem.

Those cognizant in these matters realize I’m barely scratching the surface here regarding the complexities involved in pursuing aged pu’er. Being new to this, illiterate in written and spoken Chinese, lacking texts, and living thousands of miles from true experts, I will nevertheless persist. Luckily, I have made the acquaintance of several Internet friends here in the States who also suffer from this same lunacy, and we work together in the great search. Further, I have had the fantastic good fortune of making friends both in the U. S. and in Asia who are incredibly knowledgeable and utterly trustworthy. They have generous spirits, and they go to incredible effort to write and teach and purchase and share. To these good friends, I am profoundly grateful.

One tea friend, who travels widely and lives near the Strait of Malacca, worries about my new obsession. We correspond often, and we chat from time to time on the Internet. He fears I am a victim of hype and hypnotized by the glamour fabricated by marketers. He knows how ignorant I really am—and therefore how easily duped. He is widely read in tea, more widely read than anyone I’ve ever encountered. Further, his first-hand experience in tea matches his scholarship. He is a true tea devotee. Right now he feels frustrated that I exhibit all the symptoms of one who has been sucked in.

Knowing he will read this essay, I must address his concerns. I could spend my money in worse pastimes and pursuits. I could hang out at casinos, and through the media of blackjack and slot machines, donate my money to rich casino owners. I could waste my off-hours in saloons, courting an early grave by observing the world through the bottoms of shot glasses. I live in a small village, and each time I read the local newspapers, I find the names of my students in the burgeoning reports of meth busts. That’s not for me. The cost of aged pu’er, though not insignificant, is really relative to other costs.

At least twice a month I take my small household out for a decent meal at a decent restaurant. It serves plain fare in a very modest ambiance. I know I’ll drop fifty dollars, minimum. The experience at that restaurant will last at most two hours. And at least once a month we all take in a movie at a local theater. With popcorn, soda, candy, tickets, and parking, we’re looking at a thirty-dollar expense.

Three point three grams of Seventies Meng Hai #7532 cost roughly eight bucks. Two people can enjoy that little measure all day. And when I say “enjoy,” I mean it will provide an elemental, basic, and sensual experience that restaurants and cinemas cannot match. Pu’er, in general, simultaneously satisfies my fascination with tea and my fascination with collecting. If I buy too much oolong or Darjeeling or sencha, it will get old before I finish it. That’s tragic, but it happens far too often. Yet when I buy too much pu’er, I can keep it all of my life if I choose, and if I’m careful, it might well improve and appreciate.

This brings me, at last, to collection number seven. I keep this group of pu’ers in my teaware hutch. I store it in little porcelain and Yixing-zisha canisters. It is, of course, nothing to rival the collection of a Guangzhou teamaster or an exotic Singapore teashop proprietor. I have a few aged particles of this and a couple aged crumbs of that. The tiny bits I own, well, they probably are not great by the standards of a teamaster, but I take fantastic pleasure from them. I believe all life on our planet forms one organism, and that organism has a life-force which speaks fluently through many sources, including through the medium of pu'er. When I drink good aged pu’er, I sense its immanent energy -- what the Chinese might call its qi. I feel, as Wordsworth says in a different context,

... a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Let others pursue Cuban cigars, old French wines, and Shaker chairs. Those items, in my world at least, are inconsequential. I’m hunting Sixties Guang Yun Gong, Thirty Years Yun Lai, Seventies Grand Yellow Label, Seventies Shui Lan Yin, and maybe, just maybe, Forties Song Pin. What tales will they whisper? What memories will they both recall and create? Where will they take me? What dreams—old and nascent—will rise from the cup as I lift it? I intend to find out.

— Geraldo (