Tuesday, October 29, 2019

On roasting sheng pu'er, and tea culture confirmation bias

A friend who has been visiting from Germany recently, Ralph, author of the new Daily Tealegraph blog, discussed the theme of roasting teas with me.  It came up in relation to him trying some moderate quality oolong.

this actually looks pretty cool (details and photo credit)

Ordinarily rolled oolong would be ideal for messing around with roasting, to see how that changes aspects, or to improve it related to a flaw.  It would work with any oolong (or other tea types, I guess) but I've barely considered it since I don't tend to buy teas that require adjustment in any way.  Oddly I'm partly through an exception now, a very inexpensive light Tie Guan Yin I bought in Shenzhen on that visit there, which is so-so, and I have considered that step.  I've only tried roasting an oolong once before, that I remember, and results were relatively positive.  I just don't usually keep inexpensive oolong around to mess with.

meeting at Jip Eu; I did like the higher grade of those basic oolongs

those less expensive packs convert to around $3

All of this is headed somewhere, so I'll get on with it.  We also talked about roasting green teas, or even pu'er.  I've heard of re-frying Longjing to freshen up the character, I've just not tried that myself.  Roasting pu'er is something else; that leads onto the theme I wanted to get to.

I first saw mention of it related to Don Mei of Mei Leaf selling a version.  It's unconventional.  After some discussion it came up that the practice is not unheard of in China, just not common practice (per a single claim that wasn't completely verified, to be clear).  I didn't turn up that discussion I'm remembering, but this one works as an example of people questioning if that's a good idea, and what would become of the micro-fauna (bacteria and fungus) that allows sheng pu'er to age transition / ferment.

That Mei Leaf version will work as a starting point for that starting point, with a video reference here, and their website description including this:

Psychic Stream Seeker:  Lao Man E 500 Year Old Gushu Raw Spring 2017

This is made from Gushu Lao Man E tea trees aged between 400-500 years old and house roasted by Mei Leaf in London.

Lao Man E is well known amongst PuErh lovers as an area producing potent tea with nuanced fruits and sweetness fighting their way through layers of bitterness... 

Many people find Lao Man E PuErh to be crude and overwhelmingly bitter to begin with but Love and Hate are two sides of the same coin and there is something about Lao Man E that keeps you tasting until it captures your enthusiasm. Lao Man E has shifting flavours and complex subtleties that you often have to discover through later infusions - after the bitterness is manageable...

For many, the best way to temper Lao Man E is to age it for several years or longer. This will calm some of the bitterness but the tea will lose some of its youthful fragrances...  After all it works for Oolongs...

...This PuErh has all the punch and strength of the original, raw Lao Man E, but the bitters are rounded and shortened to allow a crescendo of woodsy fruits and starchy sweetness to fill the mouth. The roasting has added a depth of colour and caramel warmth similar to a roasted Oolong. It has tempered the rushiness of young PuErh to leave you feeling high without any jitteriness...

I'll be frank:  I might have seemed a little hard on Mei Leaf in some online comments because their teas seem overpriced to me.  Quite decent, based on what I've tried, but probably exaggerated in description framing, and just not sold at standard internet outlet prices.

Physical shops tend to charge more for teas, often in the range of 30-50% more, which to me is reasonable, since they need to cover location rent and staffing costs.  I'm happy to pay a little more in a shop, to support them, especially since that adds extra valuable services for customers.  Mei Leaf seems to primarily be an online shop outlet that retains physical shop pricing, which isn't completely fair. 

It's up to them to decide what to charge, so "fair" isn't part of it, but at some point it moves from an arbitrary marketing decision to mis-representing the quality level, which is a main input related to a likely market rate for a tea.  If you sell an oolong at 50 cents a gram that amounts to an implied claim that it's relatively high quality, unless it's Dan Cong, and then that might just be normal for decent versions.  If a vendor sells the same kind of Tie Guan Yin that routinely sells for $12-15 per 50 grams for $25 instead it would be a bit misleading, especially with marketing content filled with superlatives describing the tea (even if that reads about the same as the conventional priced version descriptions--there's another odd part).

Mei Leaf provides great online video content for people new to tea; it would be fair to interpret that as a value addition.  This isn't going to be about all that, so I'll move on, after mentioning how price stacks up in this case.

That tea had been selling for $76 / 100 grams.  Gushu pu'er from an in-demand area, what it was sold as, often sells for the range of $1 / gram, so if anything it's a lower than average selling point.  Is it from 400-500 year old trees, or even from Lao Man E area?  Who knows.  Tea plant age claims are the main point of contention in discussion circles, and there is a conventional understanding that it's impossible to accurately date tree ages over 100 years old, and that most claims about such things wouldn't be accurate.  Personally I doubt it's even gushu, 100+ year old plant sourced tea, or from anywhere near Lao Man E village, but who knows.

I wanted to move on here to the idea that when word of this came out the discussion consensus was that it made no sense at all, to roast sheng pu'er.  Of course the degree to which it does really relates to the results.  Is it pleasant?  Is it anywhere near the level of appeal in relation to other options of a similar type and expense level?  Novelty can be nice in tea, and this type and preparation just doesn't come up.

In the one discussion it later emerged that it's not unheard of in China, just not all that conventional there either, and that changes things a little.  If a Western vendor decides to apply a processing step or advocate a brewing approach that seems to make no sense that's looked at negatively.  If they instead adopt an uncommon Chinese practice reserving judgment is a more natural initial starting point.

If you Google "roasted pu'er" (looking for a discussion of the topic, or other reference) the first entry that comes up on my results relates to the exception for a main pu'er-related type from Yunnan that is roasted, a Yunnan Sourcing bamboo pu'er.  I just tried falap for the first time, what I take to be a relatively identical Assam (Indian) variation of this same tea.  That was great, kind of in between conventional hei cha range and how sheng normally is, not bitter or astringent, or even smoky, which I expected.

This is Scott's description of the version I just mentioned a link for:

First flush of spring Dehong area tea is gradually steam softened and tamped down into bamboo sections in fire pits.  This aromatic bamboo is unique to Mangshi area of Dehong and must be harvested in August.  Small fire pits are dug in the village ground and are stoked with bamboo charcoal.  The bamboo sections are placed closed end down into the fire pits, as the bamboo heats up the aromatic water vapor in the bamboo sections is released as steam.  The sun-dried mao cha is gradually pushed into the hot steaming section of bamboo, and tamped down as it becomes softened by the steam.  

Once the bamboo sections are filled with tea the sections are allow to roast in the fire a while longer before being removed to a kind of oven room where they are allowed to dry for 2 or 3 days.  The charred bamboo sections are then removed and will be processed into bamboo charcoal for further use.The tea itself is subtly aromatic with floral tones.  The tea brews easily and isn't too fussy.  The tea liquor is golden yellow and transparent.  With aging this tea will develop orchid aromas with a hint of sugarcane.

falap cross section, the one that I tried

Of course applying a typical roasting process to a Lao Man E conventional sheng is something else altogether.  It's still interesting to consider, to what extent there might possibly be any overlap.

Acceptance related to a separate case

Moving on a little, maybe it's only my own way of organizing ideas, but I connect the acceptance of what goes by the name "Grandpa style" brewing with the original Chinese origin too.  The results for that can be fine; it works.  But it's my impression that if the approach didn't have the same credentials it would be completely rejected in Western circles, but as things stand it's not.

To back up and explain, that's the practice of just putting some leaves in a tumbler or jar with hot water, drinking it while still mixed, then re-adding hot water, maybe a few times.  It's a counter-intuitive approach because it doesn't control infusion time at all, so it's the exact opposite of both the standard Western and Gong Fu approaches in that one regard.

It's my understanding that the author of The Tea Addict's Journal popularized this in Western tea enthusiast circles, but it really is how many people in China make tea, maybe most of them.  That term "popularizer" can be a bit of an insult, in some uses, but it's way too long a story to get into what I mean, about bringing down ideas or theory from academic sources to the masses, in simpler form.  He didn't do that, he just mentioned a normal way to brew tea in China.

grandpa style brewing in a tea bottle, and child eating ice cream

Versus a standard meaning of confirmation bias

This isn't exactly an example of confirmation bias, of selecting what information you accept based on a predisposed understanding.  It's a source-type bias that accepts things much more from within a foreign culture instead.  Applied the right way that actually makes sense; Chinese people have been brewing tea for a long time, and it's worth at least considering their preferences.  If they fry their green tea, re-roast an oolong, or even roast a sheng pu'er then why not try it and see if they're onto something. 

The part about automatically rejecting Mei Leaf doing it works better as a match for the acceptance / rejection basis.  Their standard customers might think it sounds great because they've embraced other novel products and story lines from them with positive results.  Rejecting them roasting sheng falls under this scope too; it confirms what some other people already "know," that they are an opportunistic vendor who seeks to promote and sell any number of products or make any claims to turn a profit, if possible playing on customer ignorance, regardless of how positive final results are.  Even though they contradict to some extent both perspectives about Mei Leaf might be accurate.

Of course the main drawback related to sheng roasting is that the tea version probably should never age the same again.  That's not to say it couldn't still age-transition / ferment positively, it just seems less likely.  Good-case fermentation results occur based on carefully prepared versions exhibiting a standard range of initial compounds that are favorable to this transition, along with exposure to bacteria and fungus responsible for fermentation, and storage within an environment conducive to that biome thriving.

Anyone could roast some sheng and wait a decade to find out how that goes, testing out only roasting some and leaving the rest as it was, but short of trying that the most likely outcome would be anyone's guess.  If someone bought one 100 gram cake (as this was sold) it seems unlikely they would plan to set that aside for a few years to see how it changes; that's a good amount to drink over a relatively short period of time.  Nothing would stop someone from buying two cakes, one to save, that would just be a relatively expensive experiment, given the indeterminate nature of any expectations.

I haven't yet mentioned if I think this would work, that you could adjust the bitterness in a version of sheng by roasting with the same effectiveness and positive results of using aging for the same purpose.  I really don't know.  I'm familiar with how oolongs transition when roasted, but there wouldn't necessarily be a close parallel.  Oolongs aren't bitter and astringent in the same way young sheng are; partial oxidation changes the character, with the raw tea leaves starting out different anyway, made from different types of plants.

Ralph should check on all this for the good of the tea community.  I could toss some sheng in the oven myself but it seems disrespectful to the tea, even for inexpensive, moderate quality versions.  I rarely even write opinion posts here lately, never mind experimenting with something like that, or a water type tasting, something I've been meaning to get to for a couple of years.  Once I get through the next dozen or so reviews I'll be caught up, and maybe then I'll get to it.  But then I always think that, and then I come by more tea.

A separate non tea related case, beyond confirmation bias

That tendency to embrace all practices related to tea from China, but not so much from other sources, wasn't exactly confirmation bias, more another form of carrying over expectations.  I've ran across an interesting example of this recently I'll only touch on here.  One might think it's odd that people could embrace Trump as a wacky, abrasive, off-the-cuff reality TV show star, then also as a US President, but I don't mean that.

Online discussion brought up an odd sub-culture case of Roosh V, a celebrity of sorts, and advocate sex tourism / hook-up culture.  It's a little like the incel or mens-rights themes; shocking that it even exists in the forms those do, when first exposed to them.  That part was interesting, but a twist all the more so:  at one point that founder (Roosh) dropped those practices and converted to a conservative form of Christianity.  And he didn't lose all of his following for doing so.  It was interesting for me to check out his perspective in national speaking tour related travel videos, and I wrote about his take that America is in decline in a post on a work-space blog, which is supposed to be about Buddhism.  The short version:  I think the US is just in a time of transition, and the social-perspective issues will moderate, although I am concerned about the long term health of the economy.

Roosh V; maybe the beard ties to a monk-themed appearance?

Back to the point, how could that be, that promoting opposing views could draw following from the same people?  How could there be overlap in treating women like objects in that way, developing strategies and practices related to having sex with strangers, without forming any relationship, and the moral values of conservative, traditional Christianity?  I'd be guessing to speculate about that, but it seems there isn't as much of a contradiction in these perspectives as there first seems.  Gauging online following is difficult, relating to judging level of acceptance.  His videos level off at around 11,000 views.  Is that a lot?  By tea blogging standards, sure, but compared to podcasts or travel blogs not at all.

One might wonder, how does this relate to tea?  It doesn't, but the underlying theme seems to connect.

It seems like people start with conclusions a lot more often than they probably think they do, and then work back to why they arrived at them in the first place.  They already liked and followed Roosh, so any change he proposed, including completely rejecting the basis for the community he founded, could somehow be acceptable, even appealing.  No pu'er enthusiast is going to be quick to embrace roasted versions that tea type, but if someone followed and related to Mei Leaf teas they may well be open to trying something they would never consider otherwise, even at the commitment level of paying $76 per 100 grams.

Other examples would keep coming up.  Tea enthusiast purists uniformly reject flavored teas (not all of them, but it's as universal a running theme as any other), but due to them being part of a Chinese tradition shu pu'er stuffed tangerines / oranges are well accepted as an interesting novelty.  Outside of that context, if a Western vendor decided they wanted to stuff a dried fruit peel and store tea in it, that appeal would be much more limited.  Not to say it couldn't "fly;" using whisky or rum barrels to store and flavor tea seemed to have its moment not so long ago, and I'm not familiar with there having been a traditional basis for that.

sometimes they look strange, sometimes really strange

Bug-poop tea and civet coffee seem like related examples.  Drinking a brewed beverage made from animal feces sounds about as unappealing as anything one might dream up, but these being traditional practices at least opens people up to trying them out.  Just not me; once an animal or human digests something I've lost interest in repeating that process.

Sometimes starting point issues could go either way; people might be open to accepting or rejecting sources, practices, or products in relation to how appealing the theme is to them, to prior bias.  I wrote about possible tea cults not so long ago, citing Global Tea Hut as the most likely example of one.  In a case that like it would either elevate or reduce the appeal of their teas, even though the tea itself would have to be relatively separate from the religious-practices themes.  It's either good tea or it's not. 

to me sub-cultures varying is a good thing; how could it not be?

Reading a discussion of them as a source recently in a Tea Forum thread reminded me of this connection.  There is no consensus there, not even enough input to frame competing views, just one relatively positive and one negative take.  I wouldn't be surprised if judgment of the tea often corresponded to acceptance of their sub-cultural / religious theme, even though comments there explicitly made that separation.  The right person could completely ignore the context a tea was presented in (related to source, not consumed in; I don't mean atmosphere as a real factor), but it would seem more common for that to play a significant role.

All of this isn't headed for a tidy conclusion; that last idea is about as close as it comes to that.  It was interesting to me the way the ideas seemed to link, to some extent, beyond roasting sheng pu'er seeming interesting and a little strange.  Preconceptions are a funny thing.

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