On Britas

Hey everyone! Long time, no blog. Hope everyone’s been enjoying their tea in the meantime – I know I have! I took a trip up to Setting Sun Tea Hut in Vermont, which has beautiful tea, an awesome experience, and great well water for tea – they don’t even have to filter it. There, we had tea with tetsubins, clay kettles (chaozhou and novak), and copper kettles. The differences in each were striking – I had never tried a tetsubin before. I am sure there is a reaction going on in there on the iron-water interface.

Something like this, and this might not be the only one.

In the above reaction, the iron from the kettle binds with the water and releases hydrogen ions. Interestingly, a similar thing happens in a Brita filter, the most popular water filter around.

More than meets the eye

I’ve been familiar with them for a long time, but only recently did I understand what a Brita filter does. If you have a TDS meter, you may notice that water run through a Brita has around 20% lower TDS reading, and has a more acidic pH. They curiously don’t advertise these two features – probably because “alkaline water” is believed to be better than acidic. But why and how does it do this to the water?

In addition to activated carbon, which improves the water’s taste, Britas contain ion exchange resin pellets. In this case, these are beads that specifically accept a calcium ion (Ca2+) and give off hydrogen ions (2H+). The result of this is twofold. First, the hardness of the water is reduced, due to reduced calcium. Second, the alkalinity of the water is also reduced, because (and this is what I just figured out) the acidic hydrogen ions are neutralized by the HCO3- buffer forming H2CO3, or carbonic acid.

I used to think this was a very mild and subtle change – after all, TDS only goes down 20% on average. But recently, I took very hard, 500 TDS spring water that scales aggressively when boiled, ran it through the Brita, and boiled it. And what did I find? No scale at all. I was shocked! This means that almost all the temporary hardness (calcium-bicarbonate) is taken out. The resulting tea was way different. With the unfiltered 500 TDS water, tea is thick and muted. After the Brita, the water measured only 220 TDS, and the tea was hollow and forward.

This is when I realized that Brita filters radically alter the mineral profile of water. They cause already forward waters to be more forward and hollow out/brighten up, and cause less-present waters to become thinner and milder, but also brighter. Now, don’t get me wrong, they can still make good tea – in fact, I had a great session with an older raw puer last week with Brita-filtered NYC (Brooklyn) tap water. However, it’s definitely worth knowing that Britas don’t just make your tea taste better, they radically alter the mineral composition – and not always for the better. It’s worth testing for yourself – what do you like? Brita, or something like a Waterdrop that doesn’t change mineral content at all? Or even a blend? I personally am still alternating between many different options in order to learn more.

Photo by Joey Tea Time

tea is only as good as the water you make it with

I’ve come across a lot of analogies when talking about water for tea. A memorable one is: tea is the music, water is the speakers. Thats pretty close to how it is, but maybe tea is the music and water is the orchestra playing it. Both of these analogies involve the reproduction of music, but with the orchestra analogy there’s more responsibility given to the water. Furthermore, the orchestra would have a conductor, which would be the human brewer. But then, is the teapot the first chair, the best player in the orchestra? Or would that be the dominant flavor? No, the dominant flavor is part of the musical composition. Then, the cup must be the acoustics. But isn’t the acoustics the actual space that the tea drinking is happening in? The teapot might be the instruments that the orchestra is playing. So the water is playing the teapot, which is playing the tea into the cup; all led by the brewer.

I’ve gotten feedback on discord from people who tried a different water and were struck by how big of a difference it made, more than teaware, brewing temperature, ratio, or any other parameter. Water can be heavy, light, vibrant, muddled, astringent, subdued, dense, spacious, fluffy, metallic, smooth, and more. Water can, by the way it extracts, cause tea to be any of these things. You can even have a smooth water that makes astringent tea, so there can be a mismatch. That’s like how a shy violin player can play quite loudly and with great presence on stage.

The point is, there are many different kinds of water, and different levels. You wouldn’t yell at a 6th grade orchestra for not sounding like the Vienna symphony. So, either you have to accept your water as it is, with its flaws, or you have to figure out something better. I’ve found that there’s not much you can add or change with a bad water to make it better, just like there’s not much you can do with a not-so-talented orchestra to make it world-class. For the orchestra, you basically have to kick out all but the best players, and then replace them with better ones. With water, it’s similar. By diluting the water, you make room to introduce a better group and balance of minerals. Since every water is different and mineral content reports are so spotty and often incomplete, it’s hard to know what to add to the diluted water. So, it’s often easier to simply throw out the old water and get a new one.

With the modern recycling crisis and the expense of water transport, coupled with the non-availability of good water in glass bottles for any reasonable price, and the difficulty of making 0ppm TDS water to make recipes with (home Reverse Osmosis filters make 10ppm usually, depending on starting TDS, and distillers don’t make good tasting water, at least that I’ve tried) we as tea drinkers have to get lucky with our tap, or make do with a difficult and imperfect solution for the time being.

Impractically Pure Water

Ripe Puer as the Dominant Idea

Ripe puer tea is fairly new compared to raw puer tea, and has only been around for a few decades. Therefore it’s commonly claimed that raw puer is the “real, authentic puer tea” and ripe is just an artificial attempt at skipping the aging process of raw puer. Nowadays, ripe puer is by far more popular (and less expensive) than raw. It also has the advantage of being “ready” to drink, while many would consider a young raw to be too astringent to enjoy fresh. My first puer was a ripe one from Mark T Wendell tea company, and it was only 8 years later that I tried my first raw. And I preferred the ripe.

Since ripe puer is more common, and easier to drink, shouldn’t it be considered the dominant form of puer? I think this parallels the coffee world, where dark roast coffee is much more common than light roast, but people who are coffee enthusiasts commonly focus on light and medium roasts. The variation in ripe puer seems to be more narrow than in the countless villages and mountains of raw puer, which are most clearly exhibited in their uncomposted form. But wait a second, what about yancha? Those are all roasted, but could be considered the peak of all tea by some connoisseurs. So then, just because all ripe puer is wet-pile fermented, does this have to mean that it’s less characterful than non-wet-piled puer?

What does the wet pile process do? 

From what I understand, when loose puer is wet-piled, it’s moistened and it heats up a lot. During the 1-2 months (usually) that it spends in the pile, various molds and other microorganisms digest the green parts of the leaves and turn them brown. The bitter and astringent compounds are transformed into less bitter and much less astringent other compounds, and the leaves develop a sweet and earthy aroma. The caffeine is reduced and turned into… something. Also, the energy of the tea overall becomes more grounding and less stimulating, but there’s still caffeine in there. The light floral and other top notes are darkened and toned down by the intense microbial fermentation. 

The Duck says hi

Basically, when you wet pile puer, you’re left with less variation and subtlety between different original raw material than it originally had. Let me qualify this: there is still variation – but the range of flavor and sensation for a ripe compared to a raw is narrower. Ripe puer tends to focus on the earthy, deep fruit, and bready (if you’re lucky) tastes and smells, and nearly never on florals. A young raw puer can feature both specific floral and vegetal tastes and at the same time, deep petroleum and mineral notes. And an aged raw puer can keep some of those higher notes, while incorporating deep fruity and earthy flavors and aromas, like the 2004 biyun hao manzhuan I recently reviewed here

So, since ripe puer, though delicious, has a narrower profile than raw, but is more accessible and ready-to-drink, I think the best way to look at it would be like with dark and light roasts of coffee. Ripe puer is a comfortable, relaxing and simple brew but with an engaging profile when well-crafted. Raw puer is commonly a more challenging tea with a wider range of flavors and aromas, both within a single session and between tea from different ages and areas. Whether one is “more puer” than another is up to you and what you enjoy.

Beginners and Experts

In the world of tea, what do we gain with experience?

What’s the difference between an experienced tea drinker and a relative novice? I’m not an expert, but I’m closer to being an expert than I used to be. I’ve also interacted with many people I would consider to be experts, especially in certain areas. Here are a few things people seem to collect along the way.

Tea and teaware

I’ve not met any tea enthusiast who does not have a sizable collection. From people with over 100 teapots to those with entire rooms full of tea, there exist tea-fans so obsessed that they have gone beyond practicality. The more you learn about tea, and the more tea you learn about, the more temptation there is to buy it. Marketing is getting better and better, limited releases are everywhere (white2tea, pu-erh.sk, others), and the selection of teaware is unbelievable. It is very difficult to purposefully reduce the size of your tea/teaware stash over time, and the best way is a sale or swap.

The ability to relax and enjoy

In order to fully enjoy tea, one must drop everything else (aside from possibly a good book or album). I mean to say that worry and tea don’t go well together, especially not worry about tea. I see most (not all) beginners quite concerned about if they are making the tea “right.” Eventually, an expert learns to let the tea make itself. This is done partially through development of personal style and habit, and otherwise learning how to relax and make tea at the same time.

The ability to make good tea

Of the ten thousand ways to make tea, not all are good. Making good tea is about maximizing good qualities and minimizing bad ones. It is an iterative process that comes from many attempts. The more pots one has, the longer it takes to learn their nuances, and the worse the available water is, well, you gotta figure out a solution. The better the water is, the easier it is to make good tea. The point is, people usually get better with experience, or at least develop some character and style in their resulting tea.

Positive memories

Some tea sessions stick out over others for various reasons. With experience, the list of memorable tea sessions lengthens. That time I had HK Henry after a long, stressful day. The outdoor session at the pond in the woods. That six-tea marathon session. The tea masterclass where the puers just got older and older. That time the tea made me tear up (it happens to more people than you think!) That first bitter-turning-to sweet taste of raw puer. And the list goes on.

Friendship

I’ve met some people online and offline in the tea community. Some of these friendships go beyond tea, but it’s perfectly possible and okay to have deep friendships entirely about tea. There are one-sided relationships too – some people serve as the experts and others as the novices. The best way to put your own tea journey in context is to show others what you are doing and compare with what they do. This is not to say that people with more experience are necessarily correct, but that they may have reasons for what they do that you can think about as you decide what to incorporate in different ways.

Personal opinions / the (dis)respect of others

The tea culture is a generally polite place full of different opinions. Most tea-learning is confirmed by experience, and people don’t easily let go of that which they’ve learned from experience. There are usually reasons for differing opinions but they are not easy to figure out. So, there are commonly long arguments about, for example, tea storage, unglazed vs. glazed clay, vendor choices, whether a tea is good or bad, and water (this one seems especially contentious). This is what makes tea so exciting to an expert, especially one who is willing to change their mind.

Appreciation of non-tea

The more one learns to enjoy tea, the more that enjoyment spills over into non-tea elements. Whether it’s the world of alcoholic beverages, from single malts to wine to beer to eaux-de-vie, or just appreciation of nature, tea is about exploring the richness of the world to the fullest extent. Eventually, one learns to enjoy simply living and breathing.

Patience and its rewards

Patience is a virtue, and tea requires patience. Waiting for the water to boil takes patience. Waiting for the hot tea to cool a bit takes patience. Waiting for those loooong steeps at the end of a session takes patience. And all that patience is rewarded with a slow, steady adventure. It’s quite uncomfortable to wait so long doing nothing when you are a tea novice, but eventually it becomes clear that doing nothing is the gateway to a clear experience of reality, or something like that.

Learning from mistakes / Beginner’s mind

It’s easy to mess up a session, or brew a tea for a significant other that evokes the reaction of disgust, or spill tea all over your pants. It’s also incredibly common to have your most expensive tea with your favorite teaware and be completely let down by the result. This is learning, and why the best approach to tea is not as an expert, but as a beginner, open to whatever may happen in the current circumstance. The tea experts I respect the most don’t have any pretentious attitude, but simply know how to enjoy and share tea in their own way, and especially are good at listening to experts and beginners alike.

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at puerh brooklyn

P.S. I’m doing a lot of hard, time-consuming, mildly expensive work with water, and plan to share it with the world around March 2020. Sorry for the wait, but distilling water takes many hours, and my glass lab equipment is in customs. Thanks for reading!

Five Observations

1) Bubbles on the surface of your tea are a good sign

Sometimes, when pouring tea from a pitcher into a cup, I notice a group of bubbles collecting on the surface. Sometimes, they pop or slowly move to the side of the cup, but occasionally they stay in the middle. Mgualt calls this the “jello effect” and it has to do with the saponins in the tea coupling with the right mineral balance in the water. Usually a cup of tea with jello effect will be thick and have good vitality. I have also had this happen with just water rinsing out the empty cup and pitcher, but this could be residual saponins on the teaware.

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big bubble

2) Excess bicarbonate in water leads to softer texture, but less flavor

I’ve taken a small hiatus from adding salts and other substances to my water (besides charcoal), but when I was adding baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) I noticed this trend. High bicarbonates = softer tasting water. FIJI water is known to be soft and it contains 153 mg/L bicarbonate, which is very high. Seeing that target total mineral content in my opinion is 40-100 mg/L, just the bicarbonate level in FIJI exceeds that. This is why I don’t use FIJI for tea, you can’t really taste the tea. Why this is, someone please let me know the chemistry.

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the thing on the right measures TDS: total dissolved solids

3) The difference between 60% and 65% puer storage humidity is very significant

At 60, my puer becomes pretty sour and flat; at 65%, it’s sweet and active. That’s about it, it’s an obvious difference from smelling the cakes. I still happily drink puer stored at 55%, but if I had more humid storage space freed up I would place the tea in that. 

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very mild ambient conditions in the closet

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bag storage

4) A standard 6 gram tea session is a lot of caffeine and takes a lot of time

After my week without tea, suddenly I couldn’t get through a full session without my heart racing. For me, a session is 6 or 7 grams/100 ml, but I know others easily get through 10 grams/150ml in a sitting. This isn’t crazy, but it is enough to push your tolerance so that you may need tea to function, which isn’t what I prefer. A 100 ml session is significant, and maybe a half-size session daily will keep the caffeine addiction to a minimum, and make the larger sessions that much more special. Also, a gongfu session takes me around an hour and a half, mostly spent letting the tea cool and heating water. This is a significant amount of time and isn’t advisable to do daily unless you wake up reasonably early.

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left 180 ml, right 45.

5) Slightly alkaline water is better than slightly acidic water

This is just a general trend, around 7.8 pH is nice and strong, while 6 pH like Voss is tart and thin. I don’t understand water pH, but that’s just something I noticed.

Thanks for reading and feel free to discuss with your tea friends.

-teaboy

Veins

When I see veins on a puer tea leaf, I think “old arbor.” While I was drinking White2Tea’s Demon Slayer today, I noticed some particularly healthy-looking leaves. At 16 cents per gram, this is on the very low end of raw puer pricing these days. I wouldn’t expect to see old arbor material in this price range.

Huangpian means literally “yellow piece,” but I’m not seeing too much yellow here either. The w2t site says that huangpian refers to the larger leaves in puer production, also referred to as matured leaves in other places. I suppose it can mean one or the other.

With a huangpian cake, I guess you can get the cost down to really put some old tree material in there. For my taste, I might rather have this than plantation tea made with smaller leaves. It depends on the day though, because I also love this which is quite a bit cheaper and is all plantation tea.

I get much more relaxation and power from the Demon Slayer, probably because of those nice leaves which are very uncommon at this price point. The taste was great too. It seems very happy in my storage (a large enameled stock pot with a boveda pack).

Also, this session was with unglazed, wood-fired clay teaware made by Jiri Lang, which beats a gaiwan any day. This goes to show that memorable sessions do not belong to only the pricey teas.

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Cheap Tea