Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Review: Thunderbolt Tea, 2nd Flush Sungma Clonal Wonder 2009

I've been enjoying a lot of Darjeeling lately. The snow is falling, and I find something so comforting about the deep, rich aromas I find here.

Benoy of Thunderbolt Tea sent earlier this year a package of teas, which I have been slowly working my way through to review. Today's is Sungma Clonal Wonder.

I've been drinking this tea on and off for several months. It's very consistent, in that I can create a very appealing cup of tea under various conditions of weather, and mood, and the normal variations of a day. With a couple small children, I often find myself making a pot of tea in the middle of the wonderful noise and chaos of a world of toys, and homework, and changing tables. Oh, and my business, which I'm supposed to be working on right now.

A clonal tea is often a bit expensive, because a specific tree was chosen for its beautiful qualities, and then through a rather intensive and time-consuming process, propagated until enough new clonal plants exist for a harvest. I can see why this one tree made the cut. So to speak.

The dry leaves: ranging from almost black, to deep brown, to reddish, with maybe 10% silvery-white tips. There's a lovely sweetness that I can enjoy in the leaves, even before they are steeped.

I used three teaspoons of the leaves and steeped in a Tea-iere from JINGtea, which only holds enough space for two cups' worth. And so when I decanted into a crystal pitcher, I added another cup of boiling hot water to make up the difference. Then I set the timer for 5 minutes, allowing the complexities of the cup to develop in the pitcher before I drink.

And it's worth the wait. This has a deep honey-brown color, transparent to the bottom of the pitcher, but it gets pretty dark down there. The flavor: rather astringent, but quite smooth, for all that. A faint, faint hint of smokiness, adding a depth to the burnt honey and dark fruitiness. The life of the tea seems to be sensed mainly at the back of the throat. There's an absence, if I might use the term, in the high register, making this tea more like a piece played on a solo 'cello, rather than one performed by a whole string quartet, which is what I typically look for in a Darjeeling. A lovely, comforting pot of tea.

The lovely image above, "Girl with Red 'Cello Case," is by Ted Szukalski and can be found on his Web site.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Green Tea Review Series 6: Aura Teas, Jian Meng Green Tea 2009

Very generously, my friends at Aura Teas sent me a variety of teas from their private stash of samples, which they are not (at least at this time) offering to the public. Amazing to have such an opportunity! Today I am tasting something called Jian Meng green tea.

I'm sitting in a Panera for work purposes, and enjoying the free Wi-Fi. My hosts are very kindly offering me all the free hot water I can drink, and they've been exclaiming over the wonderful aromas of the teas I've been steeping here today. The JINGtea Tea-iere is a novelty that, once they understood the purpose of it, has been surprisingly excited about seeing. Who knows? Perhaps Panera home office will get a call about offering high-quality teas to their customers, rather than the stuff they currently offer.

I've never heard of this tea, nor can I find references to it online, except that the term, Jian Meng, is apparently been used as to describe a Chinese pu-erh brick. Other than that: nada. So let's dive in.

The leaves are a pale green, fairly small leaf, and this sample has no small amount of broken leaf, but no stemminess. Beautifully fragrant leaves-- have I mentioned how much I love the highly fragrant greens? The aroma coming from the wet leaves is seriously intoxicating. I'm happy I'm sitting in an out-of-the-way corner at Panera, so fellow customers won't think I'm dangerously bizarre for sniffing my JINGtea Tea-iere, in which I steeped the leaves for three minutes with steaming, filtered water. Perhaps it's all the muscatel Darjeeling speaking, which I've been drinking lately, but there's a grape quality to the aroma: a fruity-floral, rather than vegetal, thing going on.

The liquor is a tawny gold, almost an orange, and it is highly fragrant, as well (which is not always the case). The Jian Meng is quite light on the tongue, with a bright quality that nevertheless doesn't have a particularly long-lasting aftertaste. I can taste a flavor rather like chestnuts, a touch of citrus fruit; and that umami that all the kids go on about nowadays, which makes me think of mushrooms, and well-seared steaks, and rich French onion soup. (Which is rather an odd thing to think about when drinking a lightly crisp, bracing green tea, but there you have it.)

Initially, though, there is a sharp bite to each sip (at least, while the tea is quite hot), accompanied by a lovely, drying mouthfeel that I find arresting. The dry mouthfeel continues on, even after the initial sharp flavor of the tea too-quickly dissipates.

In my experience, the Jian Meng's enjoyment seems mostly bound up in its beautiful aroma and it's substantial mouthfeel. The flavor, unfortunately, seems to die off too quickly after sipping, but for the umami, which I mostly experience almost by inference.

It's admittedly a bit odd, discussing a tea that is not in wide circulation and which I am unlikely to experience again, because I can make no recommendations to buy or not for an unavailable item. Nevertheless, how enjoyable to break open something I've never heard of and which is its own unique delight, with its own character and personality. What a pleasure!

As a side note: When I can find more information about this vintage tea from Aura Teas, I will add it here as an addendum.

(The above image is also an item of uncertain provenance: Maybe Jackson Pollack's "Number 1, 1950.")

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Review Series Green Tea 5: Maeda-en Kuki-Cha Twig Tea with Matcha 2009

"Great with sweets."

Japan is a small island. Therefore, the tea farmers have to be very smart agronomers, making the most of the tight spaces they have to grow their crops. Kuki-cha is a crucial part of the system of making the absolute most of the resources they have. After the tender leaves are plucked every Spring, the Japanese choose to then pluck the green shoots and very frugally make that into a tea of its own: kuki-cha.

In this case, Maeda-en blends the shoots with a touch of matcha powder, which is made from the light-sheltered gyokuro leaves and ground into a fine tea dust. Matcha is typically used in the Japanese tea ceremony, but here is added to lend a bit of mellowness to the flavor and brightness to the color.

And brightness! The leaves are by far the lightest green in my tea drawer. When steeped, the liquor is an opaquely rich, saturated, radioactive green color that could easily have been accidentally created by Homer Simpson at the nuclear power plant. When I poured off the tea, I could easily see the sharp difference between the 1/2-inch, pale shoots and the darker leaf matter, which appeared much like cooked spinach.

When I first made the tea (80C, 1min), I found it to be a bit... well, weird and bitter. Sencha, I understand. Matcha, not so much, though I've tasted it at Japanese tea ceremony a couple of times. The tea was vegetal and a bit bitter. I went back to the Web site and read that this pairs well with sweets-- much in line with how the Japanese tea ceremony is designed, with dainty sweets accompanying the rather bitter tea, allowing for greater enjoyment.

So I pulled out our Toll House chocolate chip (on the theory that chocolate and matcha pair nicely together) and made the tea again (85C, 1min), and did have better results. The buttery quality of the tea was lovely and quite sweet (once the bitterness was taken care of), and I was able to enjoy the lightly vegetal quality-- a bit like asparagus.

Typically, I enjoy teas without accompaniment: just me and the naked leaves. In this case, the tea actually seems deliberately designed to be drunk alongside the sweets, much as British teas are cultivated to best survive the cultural habit of adding milk and sugar and drinking alongside scones and cream. Drunk on those terms, honoring the cultural heritage that brought about this tea, it's quite delicate and enjoyable. Drunk, though, in the raw (the tea, I mean: you can enjoy it in whatever state of dress or undress you choose), this makes much less sense and is not nearly as enjoyable.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review: Tea Forté, Formosa Oolong '09

I didn't sleep last night, and I spent a big chunk of today outside, in the cold, at Goebbert's Pumpkin Farm, along with my baby girl and my little boy. Goebbert's is a farm that has gone the clever route of agritourism, in which they celebrate harvest with, among other things, the world's only Pumpkin-Eating Dinosaur, a haunted house, mazes, a couple giraffes (in north-central Illinois, no less), a pumpkin cannon, apple cider donuts, a cornstalk maze, and even pig races. (Hammy Faye Bacon won by a hair, incidentally.) The baby was warm because she was bundled emphatically, with all my bundling might; and my seven-year-old boy was racing around. So I'm the only one of the three of us who is cold and tired, and feeling just a bit old.

ANYWAY, to warm up and attempt to get through the long, dark afternoon of the soul, I am drinking Formosa Oolong by Tea Forté. It is in a clever nylon pyramid-shaped teabag, and I think the leaves within it are in pretty good shape.

Hidden within a tea bag, I can tell very little about their appearance. The steeped leaves have a pleasant enough, sweetly roasted aroma. I don't really think the nylon bag affected the aroma. The tea bags reside inside a pyramid-shaped card-stock paper wrapper, and they have a cute metallic string with a little leaf on the end. Stylish looking and neat. Typically, none of the teas I enjoy are distributed in tea bags, so I don't have much to compare this to.

I used just-under-boiling water (around 195 or so), in a covered, glass cup, for about 3 minutes. The Web site suggests 2-4 minutes, so I'm right in the zone.

A transparent, brown liquor with a roasty aroma. The flavor does not really work for me. I noticed an odd flavor note that makes me think of a paper bag. Now, I know that the nylon bag has nothing to do with this (not being made of paper, of course), but nevertheless there's something there I can't quite account for. Very light mouthfeel.

I don't really want to belabor this review with the history of oolong, or the significance of Formosa tea-making practice, nor the proper place of teabags in the enjoyment of my favorite beverage. The thing is, I don't enjoy this tea, and I find I haven't finished the cup. I wonder if the paper packaging failed to protect these unfortunate tea leaves from off-flavors it might have picked up in transit or in storage. I'd be interested to taste this again, if I knew it was freshly packaged and stored in airtight foil. I don't think my leaves gave me the same experience that was had by the distributor when they first received their shipment from the tea farms in Formosa.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

REVIEW: Li Shan Oolong 2009, JING Tea

Li Shan Oolong, 2009

"Oh, this is going to be good."

The aroma of the first steeping greeted me with an intensity that I'd forgotten. I've had Li Shan oolong only once before (a Fang Tea offering), and it had knocked my socks off. When that first whiff of this intensely fragrant leaf hit me as I poured out, I was reminded that I like Li Shan, and I look forward to tasting what this has in store for me.

Li Shan is a high-grown (over 2000 meters) mountain tea, and the region was recently in the news because a horrible hurricane swept the area, and the mountain tea gardens were unable to hold the topsoil, which washed down and caused havoc in the communities below. The Taiwan legislature has a bill in the works that (if passed) will make it illegal to grow Li Shan oolong at these high elevations, for fear that global warming will cause more hurricanes and thus more havoc. You can read more about this here.

1st Steeping: 25s
For the first steeping, I chose 25 seconds of just-boiling, filtered water that has been soaking with Japanese charcoal, and tea made in my new glass teapot, courtesy of the very kind folks at JING Tea. What a beautifully fragrant tea, with a creamy, milky aroma. The lemon-yellow liquor is perfectly clear, with a tiny amount of broken leaf that has snuck through the filter into the fairness cup. Perhaps it's the power of suggestion by the creamy aroma, but the mouthfeel of the tea is thick, quite substantial. Creamy, in fact. The balled leaves opened into springy, summer-grass green leaves that are only partially unfurled. This promises a number of lovely steepings. The damp leaves are deeply aromatic, and they seem only lightly oxidized, with reddish-brown only at the very, very edge of the leaf. I'm fairly partial to lightly oxidized oolongs, and this is quite typical of the type of tea I've discovered I really love.

I admit, there is a faint bitterness in the cup, only a frisson, and I believe it adds to the attractiveness of the offering by Jing. I don't usually look for bitterness in a cup of tea, but it's one of the five tastes, and we shouldn't try to avoid it in every circumstance, but rather embrace it as part of the sensory experience. In this case, it adds an edge to the otherwise very smooth cup.

2nd Steeping: 20s
Again, the lemon-yellow cup, clear and lovely. As the wenxianbei [sipping cup] cools, the aroma moves from these creamy, thick aromas to a more autumn-garden kind of aroma: earthy but light. Still, a very hint of bitterness, though less than on the first steeping. It's possible I oversteeped slightly, and so I realized I had a word problem on my hands. So I asked for some advice on my tea math.

Word Problem: Stevie wants to steep his Li Shan oolong for 20 seconds. His new teapot pours out at 7 seconds. He does not want to oversteep. Should he (a) start pouring at 20s, knowing that the latter part of the brew will have oversteeped by 7 seconds? Does he (b) start pouring at 13 seconds, knowing that the last drop will be steeped at exactly 20s? Or (c) does Stevie start pouring at 16.5 seconds [if he is able to be this accurate], knowing that the tea will, on average, be 20s?

Solution: As of the third steeping, I am going to go with (c), on the assumption that the average of 20s (or whatever length of time I'm steeping) is better than under- or oversteeping. I'm open to suggestions if this is not other people's tea practice.

3rd Steeping, 20s
I find it's difficult for me to describe this tea. Li Shan oolong is memorable among a thousand flavors: rich, earthy, fragrant, sharp, bright, subtle, redolent of cooking herbs and buttery bread. There's an undercurrent, oddly, of unusual animal aromas I associate with a day at the zoo: exotic, pungent, musky. In other words, my description makes no sense whatsoever, and it gives you no idea of what I'm actually experiencing.

So I'll try this another way: The difficult-to-describe aroma and flavor have coated my mouth and throat, they're rising up into my nose from the back of my throat, and the aftertaste is lingering a surprisingly long time. I like it a lot, though I can't say I would need to drink it every day of my life.

Michael J. Coffey wrote recently that it is a crime against tea (to horribly paraphrase him and invite correction) to drink while writing, or write while drinking. He maintains that converting the experience from the nondiscursive flav0r-aroma-texture-energy moment, into a carefully edited piece of language blunts the pure enjoyment of the moment, and it inhibits sense memory. I can't disagree. But that being said, I write to help me remember over the long run, what I had experienced at one point, and to help me make purchasing, drinking, and serving decisions. And hopefully to encourage others to open themselves up to exquisite tea experiences they might not have thought to try otherwise.

Again, thanks to JING Tea for very generously allowed me to taste their Li Shan oolong (also called Ali Shan), a high-mountain tea from Taiwan. I wrote rather extensively about LiSan oolong here, and invite you to read about my very first foray into this intensely beautiful type of tea. I will excerpt here from an excerpt there, which I took from Winnie Yu's blog:

Li Shan Oolongs are the most intensely fragrant, smooth buttery oolong there is, topping Taiwan oolongs growing everywhere else. Particularly, there is a pronounced taste of gan that lingers for an entire day, with less and less astringency the higher the elevation, no matter how strong a cup of tea you make. Incredibly sweet with a taste of fruit that's been cooked at high heat, Li Shan tea no doubt is so highly sought after, many unscrupulous merchants would try to dupe the unsuspecting consumer. It is highly unlikely to buy any Li shan tea less than $200 USD p/lb. at a retail level, and at that price, one is guaranteed that it came from the second-flush or 'second spring', or lower elevations at 1700 meters. Da Yu Ling oolongs are well over $300 p/lb., and difficult to acquire even if one would pay for it, for all of the crops are usually spoken for.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Review: Big Red Robe Supreme (Da Hong Pao) 2009, JINGTea

Recently, I bought a simple gaiwan, as well as wensienbei, the Taiwanese-style aroma cup set. I tried them out on this Big Red Robe by JING tea and had a great time. (Sadly! I broke the gaiwan and still haven't replaced it. I will, I will, I promise.)

I have come to love Big Red Robe oolongs. At least, the ones I've tasted have been uniformly delightful, and JING tea's is no exception.

I steeped the tea with the best gongfu I could muster: I filled the gaiwan a little less than about a quarter of the way with the leaves, and used just-under-boiling water throughout the steeping sequence. By using a lot of leaf and many short steeps, I am able to drink tea in chapters, opening up the flavor of the leaves without having an overly weak cup. A good gongfu session can last an entire afternoon, with many many steeps. I recorded a few of them here, but I kept steeping well after I had run out of time to take sipping notes.

Steeping 1: 25s
The leaves are a rich, dark color, of what seems to be a medium-roasted DHP with a high level of oxidation. Leaves are beautifully resilient, with a sharp aroma that has high citrus notes. Quite brilliant.

Steeping 2: 20s
The aroma cup carries this intense, sharp aroma I describe as Christmas berries-- spicy, citrus, light, sharp. A slightly bitter edge that could easily be attributed to my inadequate gongfu.

Steeping 3: 20s
Almost a vanilla aroma arising; berries and pine, again making me think of Christmas after breakfast. The taste is... okay, not fantastic but good. It's slightly bitter, but again, I think it's my fu as I get used to my new equipment.

Steeping 4: 20s
Less sharp and intense, the bitterness abating (from the roasting process, most likely), I now start to get to know the tea itself. Woodsy astringency. My, but my table got wet. There is an attractive roughness to this tea, a hard-elbowed quality I rather like. It's the huigan that carries this lovely quality-- the rising sweetness that makes me think of burning sweet applewood, say; ever so slightly smoky, fruity but not fruit (again, applewood, not apple).

Steeping 5: 35s
Aroma: sweet sushi rice, applewood. The aroma seems to dissipate more quickly. The deep brown-gold color has become a lighter orange-amber. Beautiful sweetness, but with a burn in the throat that catches the attention and is sharply at variance with the lightness in the mouth. There is a lovely mouthfeel, substantial even at the fifth steeping. A slight minerality develops in the mouth, like iron perhaps, as the more prominent, roasty flavors are in retreat.

Steeping 6: 45s
Most surprising here is the huigan, which rises up a couple minutes after drinking. Complicated flavors that remind me of a bonbon thing I once had at the Russian Tea Cafe, in Chicago: as it melted, different flavors would appear (first the pomegranate sorbet, then the ice cream, finally the orange-scented white chocolate). Here, a progression. The flavor is now quite muted, but still enjoyable. Learning to burn myself a little bit less on the gaiwan.

Steeping 7: 55s
Finally, a bit of floral brightness appears in the aroma. Flavor receding, but the mouthfeel-- not as dry now, but substantial-- is quite good. I don't know what I think Qi is, but I feel quite energetic and alert, without a hint of anxiety or jitteriness.

Steeping 8: 65s
The aroma is now like a candy at the front, in the high notes, with a hint of tobacco following. And then very little aroma following through.

A very nice DHP, with a robust character that carries through a number of steepings. Complex and quite interesting.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Review Series Green Tea 4: JingTea, Dragon Well 2009 (In a JingTea Tea-iere)

Jing Tea sells a lovely Dragon Well, which they describe thus:

Picked on 5th April 2009 from Cedar Hill garden. Our Dragon Well green tea is characterised by enticing sweet aromas of freshly plucked tea buds and teasing orchard fruit.

Dragon Well is one of the most famous green teas in China. Complex and multi-layered with warm, creamy, soft plant notes filled out by understated peach.

The traditional method of making Dragon Well is what really sets it apart. Each individual tea bud is hand-pressed and shaped in a wok to achieve the perfect level of roasting.

Certified organic by the Soil Association. Fair Trade certified by IMO Switzerland.

I invite you to visit their nicely informative Blog, which has quite a bit of information about this year's Dragon Well, including this video:

Quite nice, eh? The folks at Jing do a great job with marketing their product, making wonderful use of the Internet to spread the word on their tea.

Very typical for a good Lonjing, these leaves are brightly green, sharp, with very little broken leaf. I can't resist taking long jing leaves and munching on them as I prepare the water, because they're like tea candy. You should try this, if you haven't already.

THE PREPARATION (in the JING Tea Tea-iere)
Per the Web site instructions, 80C, 4min. I prepared this in a glass Jing Tea Tea-iere, which is a glass carafe that has a metal filter that fits nicely at the top. I have been playing a lot with this bit of teaware, and for green teas like this, the thin, glass wall allows the temperature of the water to dissipate, avoiding stewing the leaves. I used to use a French press for making tea, but it had the unfortunate side-effect of smashing the leaves down into the bottom of the carafe, which both wasted some tea and crushed the leaves, releasing some bitterness. I wouldn't advise that now, but the Tea-iere seems to solve that problem pretty nicely. It's convenient, and the carafe is pretty attractive.

The liquor is the palest green, perfectly transparent, with a sharp, bright, delightful aroma. If you enjoy beautifully aromatic teas, a good longjing is definitely something you should check out. The aroma is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this type of tea, and it can be intoxicating.

But how does it taste? Slightly nutty, a bit like almond. I experienced a lightly drying mouthfeel. JingTea's offering has quite a lot of character, with a warming, friendly-yet-crisp, vegetal tone. Next to no bitterness, and a wonderful huigan (which is a sweet aftertaste that asserts itself retronasally, after the cup has been completed) that follows me around rather a while longer than I expected.

I've not been drinking as much green tea lately as usual, and this meets me exactly where I need to be. Crisp, aromatic, complex, friendly.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Review Series Green Tea 3: Mighty Leaf Organic Green Dragon (pouch) 2009

Things have changed since I last ventured to use a teabag. Mighty Leaf uses a nylon bag (presumably scent free), in which they place their "Organic Green Dragon," which is their title for Longjing (Lung Ching), which is typically known as Dragonwell in the Western world. It's description, found on their Web site, reads,

An organic dragonwell green tea from China (also known as Lung Ching), our Organic Green Dragon envelops the whole palate with a slightly sweet, very refreshing liquor. A classic wok-fired chinese green tea, it has a delicate chestnut like flavor, captivating aroma, and a lovely yellow-green color. Whole loose leaf green tea fills our silken tea pouch, our gourmet tea bag twist, to infuse the senses.

Longjing is one of the great Tribute Teas of China, and it's almost always placed on the list of 10 Famous Teas. These teas were given in tribute to the Emperor, who got first pick and distributed it at his will among his loyal followers. A longjing tea is nothing to sneeze at.

Longjing is typically supposed to come from West Lake, a region in China famous for this tea. Leaves from this region will fetch a high price, and the very best leaves still never leave China, but are kept for the leaders in their government. One problem with purchasing a longjing is that leaves grown all over China can be labeled, "Longjing," even if they are what Chinese would typically think of as being not quite kosher. One thing that makes longjing teas unique is their processing, where specially trained tea wranglers (so to speak) will wok-fry the leaves in a tiny amount of tea tree oil, and they use the "Ten Movements," which are a series of hand movements (typically 10, but can be more or less, depending on who is doing it) to form the leaves into careful, flat spears.

In addition, the early, pre-Ming Festival leaves demand the highest price, and leaves plucked after that date are often discounted as not being quite top-drawer.

Now, Mighty Leaf does not identify when their tea was plucked (though I must presume 2009), nor the location of origin (other than "China"). I would suggest to them, if they are in possession of this information, that they might wish to provide it on the Web site, to help sell their product.

When I drink a longjing, I look for a bright, fragrant cup with a lovely yellow, pure character. I hope the leaves will be bright and fresh looking, and in pretty good shape, to avoid bitterness.

The Web site suggests steeping the sachet 2-3 minutes in 170 to 180F water. I chose 80C (176F) as being a good average, and for the full 3 minutes, in a glass pot (very happily provided by Jing Tea).

For this cup, I couldn't really see how the leaves were formed, because they were in the tea bag, though I could see a bit of broken leaf. The wet leaves had a pleasant enough aroma, though rather faint. The liquor is pure yellow-gold. The flavor is grassy with a hint of an acerbic, herbaceous quality I find appealing, and which I've missed for several long months, as I've been drinking other teas.

Ultimately, though, I find the Organic Green Dragon to be rather flat and disappointing. I do not know if it's because of the leaf itself, or because it's been placed in a sachet for convenience sake, or because of deficiencies in my own steeping. I love longjing, and I wanted this to be brighter and much more fragrant than it ultimately was. Again, I enjoyed the flavors and aroma, but I wanted more of them in the cup, on my tongue, and in my nose.

(Cross-posted on TeaViews.com)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Review Series Green Tea 2: TeaHub Pre-Ming West Lake Long Jing 2009

The folks at Tea Hub are smart. When discussing the provenance of their tea, they are very, very serious about ensuring that, say, their Long Jing (Dragon Well) tea really comes from the West Lake region in China. For buyers like me, this is invaluable as I learn about the Great Teas of the world.

Provenance is what the game is all about. Many famous Chinese teas are fairly costly, because there are only so many acres available upon which to grow a region's characteristic tea. Thus, limited source leads to cost increases in the tea when it comes to market. So unscrupulous dealers will try to sell quite similar counterfeits from other, less-famous regions, as the real thing. (As an example, imagine a Peruvian wine dealer trying to pass off their bubbly wine as "Champagne," even though it does not come from that region of France. It's misleading and harmful to the industry, and it sets the experts' teeth on edge when they see it.)

The Tea Hub's Web site (and their Twitter feed, @TeaHub, which is a place to speak directly with the knowledgeable staffers who know their tea) is a great source of information, and I urge you to wander through and learn something, as I did. This, I learned from their article, "Majority of Long Jing and Bi Lo Chun Are from Si Chuan."

Recent news from ChengDu Business Paper said that 80% Long Jing (from Zhe Jiang), Bi Luo Chun (from Jiang Su) on the market are actually from Si Chuan. According to the news, unethical business people purchase Si Chuan teas at low prices and sell them as Long Jing or Bi Luo Chun at 3 to 4 times the paid prices.

An expert told the reporter that appearance of real Long Jing and Si Chuan tea, Zhu Ye Qing, are quite similar. It is very hard for regular people to tell the differences. Experts from Tea Research Institute also said that Long Jing demanded high prices while its production was low. Therefore, some business people produce Si Chuan Long Jing to make high profits.

Good grief: 80% of the stuff was reportedly fake, back in 2004, when the article was written. For someone like me, who is only discovering Long Jing in the first place, this is just so frustrating. How can one discover what is the real deal, and what is faked?

Tea Hub followed up with a companion article this year, "Reading Long Jing Tea Leaves," which addresses the same situation. An excerpt:

Below are photos of the most common faked Long Jing on the market. The one on the left is Wu Niu Zao from Wen Zhou, Zhe Jiang, and the one on the right is Zhu Ye Qing from Si Chuan.

Both Wu Niu Zao and Zhu Ye Qing are early-harvest teas. Because that early-harvest Long Jing demand much higher prices and only have limited productions, some illegal business people chose to fake Long Jing with Wu Niu Zao and Zhu Ye Qing in pursue of maximum profits. Real Long Jing teas have beautiful straight, flat leaves with none or very few hairs. Faked Long Jing, on the other hand, have fluffier leaves, some even covered with hairs. Leaves of faked Long Jing from Zhu Ye Qing are smaller than real ones. Leaves of faked Long Jing from Wu Niu Zao are bigger than real ones.

There are other sources of information about this same phenomenon, as well; I think I will write an article about, "The Great Tea Counterfeit Heist: The Seamy Underbelly of the Dirty Tea World," sometime. In the meanwhile:

THE TEA HUB: West Lake Long Jing

Tea Hub's description of their West Lake Long Jing scans with the information above.

Pre-Ming West Lake Long Jing/ Dragon Well (明前西湖龙井) 2009 Spring Tea!

Another great West Lake Long Jing (also called Dragon Well or Lung Ching) from Tea Research Institute in HangZhou, the only authority in tea quality test in China.

This delicate pre-Ming Long Jing was grown at Tea Research Institute's Long Jing tea garden in the protected West Lake Long Jing Origin area, and hand fired by experienced masters. This year's extremely cold weather caused delay in harvest. Our Long Jing is the few early harvest. This tea carries Chinese Green Food Certificate.

Exactly as described. Sadly, when I originally started writing this article, I did not have camera on hand to document the leaves, but they were a brilliant green, sharp and flat because of the method of frying the leaves, and delicious. And when I say, "delicious," I meant that I tasted the leaves, and it's like wonderful tea candy. Seriously, they could market it as a snack-- except for the fact that you get a mouthful of rather gummy tea leaf residue once the crunch has worn off. When wet, the leaves took on a beautiful citrus-grape and seashore aroma. It's the aroma that is so intoxicating with this type of tea, really.

The liquor: pale greenish, clean. It's highly fragrant, and this Long Jing is as good as any I've ever had. It's refreshing, like the aroma of freshest grass clippings, like citrus, like lemon...

I found a sweet, sweet aftertaste, which rises up through the throat. This is why I drink tea.

I can quaff this down in large quantities, because it is so easy and pleasing to drink (same with cranberry juice: can just chug it forever, seemingly) without coming up for air.

The package says it is pre-Ming, and it's been dated quite carefully. Happily, because of the certification, I can have some certainty that this is the real deal, and not faked. As I attempt to develop my palate enough to be able to tell the real thing from the fake, it helps when I can perhaps trust the dealer to be providing something legitimate.

I can't wait until next Spring to be able to buy the 2010 Long Jing. This tea is best purchased right around the time of picking, so when it's drunk, it'll be at its best. When I took the tasting notes on this tea, it was only a couple weeks after it had been harvested. (Sad, how long it took me to finish the rest of the article! I'm trying to catch up, really I am.) You would not really want to buy or taste a Longjing in midwinter, for example, because by then the leaves would have lost their "oomph." Green tea, in particular, is a seasonal, vintage product, and it's best enjoyed on those terms.

(This review has been cross-posted at TeaViews.com)

Lochan Tea Tasting Event

There are a few spots still available for the Lochan Tea Tasting event, which they are hosting on Facebook.

Ankit Lochan
Online facebook tea tasting... We will supply you with 10 ounce of tea (free of cost).. only shipping 20 USD per head shall be applicable.. we will wait for 50 sign up's .. once we have them we will start posting the samples... once you receive ...the samples you will have a weeks time to assess the teas and then we will take one tea at a time and proceed with online posting of the results and we will see what all of us have to offer.. the best review writer shall be awarded a prize.. (the prize is a secret).. to be disclosed after the event is over.. any suggestions.. please advise... thank you... for signing up please confirm on facebook and email us your adress and vivek shall be in touch with you. his email is vivek@lochantea.com ... thank you!!

Please consider participating in the event, which I'm sure will be quite a good introduction to Indian and Himalayan teas. Contact Vivek Lochan with your contact information: Vivek@LochanTea.com. Vivek supplied this list of the teas that will be showcased:

1. Doke Silver Needle, 2nd Flush 2009, Bihar
2. Meghma Oolong, 2nd Flush 2009, Nepal
3. Korakundha FOP, 2nd Flush 2009, Nilgiri - South India... Read More
4. Hattialli Golden Bud, 2nd Flush 2009, Assam
5. Harmutty Golden Paw, 2nd Flush 2009, Assam
6. Margaret's Hope Muscatel, 2nd Flush 2009, Darjeeling
7. Thurbo FTGFOP 1 CL TPY, 2nd Flush 2009, Darjeeling
8. Jungpana Imperial Muscatel, 2nd Flush 2009, Darjeeling
9. Castleton FTGFOP 1 CH SPL, 2nd Flush 2009, Darjeeling
10. Masala Chai, Indian Chai Blend

1 ounce of each tea will be sent to all participants

As for myself, I've tasted teas from only four of the nine estates listed (not counting the chai, of course), so I expect this to be a good learning experience. As you can see from the list, these are all second-flush (picked in summertime) Indian and Himalayan teas from Bihar, Darjeeling, Assam, Nilgiri, and Nepal.

If you haven't dipped your toe into high-quality India teas, this would be a good way to start. Because it's a group event, people will be able to learn with each other as they taste the various teas.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Review Series Darjeeling 1: Risheehat Clonal Flowery SFTGFOP1, Second Flush '09

I'm dealing with quite a backlog of partially written reviews, which have been piling up for a while. I'm creating a number of interlocking series of reviews, and this kicks off Review Series Darjeeling.

My great tea friend, Benoy Thapa, is the face of Thunderbolt Tea. He blogs occasionally at the Darjeeling Tea Blog, and his very useful Twitter feed is @DarjeelingTea. Thunderbolt Tea also has a Facebook page, which is another pretty useful way to keep up with him. Quick tea fact: Did you know that the word, Darjeeling, is a reference to the thunderstorms that keep the tea so well watered?

Now, why am I shilling so shamelessly for Benoy? Mainly, as a lover of Darjeeling tea, I appreciate learning about what's happening in Darjeeling, and how the weather is affecting the crops and so on. Plus, it's lovely to think of whether the clouds are hiding the mountains, and which festival is going on, and the like. For me, it's been a great help in gaining a better understanding of the local conditions in which my beloved Darjeeling teas are grown.

Earlier this summer, Benoy sent me simply the most extravagant shipping I've ever seen, with the tea encased in no less than five packages: a paper sack, within a mylar or some such shiny metallic plastic bag, packed with four other teas, all within another mylar bag, within a cardboard box, all sewn into a burlap package covered in sealing wax, with almost every square inch of the package covered in writing for customs officials. Shipping things from overseas to the United States is no mean feat, because the laws governing herbs are so strict. I very much appreciate the great effort Benoy took to ensure this great tea arrived here intact.

Today I'm drinking a Summer '09 Risheehat Estate Clonal Flowery. Now, for those of you who haven't really dug deeply into the world of Darjeeling teas, you have to learn that great teas are like great wines: They are vintages that can differ greatly from region to region, and farm to farm, and season to season. The first flush is the Spring plucking of the leaves, and they typically have rather a lighter touch than the second flush or autumnal flush pluckings. The second flush, which is plucked in summer, is typically more complex and robust than the first flush. The teas from a great estate like Risheehat can be so exciting, because they are unique in the world's tea, with a character distinctly special.

I've found that most high-quality Darjeeling tea leaves have a fairly similar appearance when they are dry: tight, fairly small twists of black leaf, with a bit of golden tippiness and no sign of branches. Once they have been steeped, they take on more varied character. for the Risheehat clonal flowery, we see a bit of reddish-brown, broken leaf, well oxidized, though with bits that have a greenish cast.

This tea had a pretty dark-brown liquor, with the characteristic Darjeeling aroma, very classic; with a lovely, bright floral scent of summer berries. Now that autumn is here in Illinois, with the gray clouds streaming by, it's like drinking a bit of summer in a cup, with bright colors and sharp flavor. The tea has such a sharply defined taste, which is a bit difficult to describe. There's sort of an astringent chocolate, like bitter dark chocolate, overlaid with a fruity high note of berries and brown honey. It's sweet-- requires no sugar or milk at all-- and has a huigan [sweet aftertaste] that moves into more a light cocoa flavor I sense hints of almond nuttiness. (I always think of Ratatouille, in which Remy's brother, upon hearing Remy spout some such nonsense, said, "Oh, I sense nuttiness, all right.")

When drinking this tea, please do not neglect to make a second steeping. I have heard much discussion about how to conduct a second steeping: Some people say only steep a few seconds (10 or 15) on the belief that the leaves, already opened, are ready to release their flavor quickly; others suggest doubling or tripling the length of the steeping, so that you draw the most out of the leaf. I just steeped the same amount as the first time 'round (3 minutes, Third Boil (98C), and poured off. Same dark-brown color. This time the flavor is a bit brighter, absent some of the darker notes that were evident in the first steeping. Slightly more astringent, which means it's a bit dry in the mouth, like a white wine. Not quite the body of the first round, but pleasant enough.

Quickly, go to the Thunderbolt Tea Web site, and buy up some of these wonderful teas before Benoy runs out of them. Many of the first-flush teas are gone, but there are still quite a few great second-flushes available for purchase. Thunderbolt has an amazing selection of high-grown, single-estate teas, and the Web site has good information about each distinct vintage, to give you an idea of what you're buying. And the Autumnal Flush is not far off, I believe!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Review Series Green Tea 1: Grand Tea, Premium Bi Luo Chun 2009

Grand Tea has a video in which a tumbler of Bi Luo Chun leaves are steeped. Strangely, whenever I make my own glass of this lovely green tea, seagulls do, indeed, start calling, and soothing music rises up in the background.

For some background on the tea, I found this on their Web site:

Bi Lu Chun is one of the most famous Green tea in China, it means "Green Spring Snail" in Chinese and is named by an emperor in seventeenth century by its look. GrandTea.com's Bi Luo Chun ( Pi Lo Chun , Bi Lu Chun) is first class Green Tea comes from Suzhou province in China. To product this tea, the leafs and buds are picked by skilled hands one by one in the early spring. The tea has almost no broken leafs and the shape is so called "one bud two leafs" which is an ideal shape of the best quality green tea. Taste, and aftertaste is light, sweet and pleasant with a hint of fruity fragrance. This Bi Lou Chun is limited produced and will only be available in a limited time each year. Preparation of this tea need to do with care. General tips are use one tablespoon or 3-4 grams of tea leaves for every 160 ml water. The temperature should be 75-80 °C with a steeping time 1-3 minute depend on the desired strength.

Opening the package, I found tiny, olive-green twists of leaf, which opened up to become . . . tiny, obviously new-growth leaves in the pot. It's always a great idea to study the loose-leaf tea leaves when you make a cup of tea, so you can learn a lot about a tea by the appearance and aroma of the dry leaves. In this case, because the leaves were so tiny, I could tell they were plucked at an early stage in Spring. If it takes twice as many tea plants to produce the same weight of leaf, it will obviously cost more to produce. Also, because the leaves are so fresh, their taste will be more delicate. Chinese will spend quite a lot of money for these early leaves (which they refer to as "Pre-Ming," in reference to the QingMing festival, which takes place on the 15th day from the Spring equinox; and in which everyone goes outside to tread on the green, enjoy the weather, and take care of their ancestors' graves).

I followed the steeping instructions provided by Grand Tea's Web site, though I used my great-grandmother's century-old porcelain Japanese teapot instead of a glass tumbler.

My family and I love this tea. It is bright, pleasantly vegetal, with a slightly dry mouthfeel and a nicely floral fragrance. Settling into the cup, I enjoy the clean refreshment of the liquor: yellow-gold in color, perfectly transparent. Exactly what I expect a high-quality Bi Luo Chun to taste like. This particular one tastes of sweet rice, and a bit buttery. I enjoy the long finish with notes honey and grain.

Why drink this tea? It's very refreshing and clean, with a happy Spring feeling. After I let the tea rest a bit and come back to it, it's surprisingly green, and upbeat, and bright, with a crisp, dry edge that keeps all that sweetness from becoming cloying.

(This review has been cross-posted at TeaViews.com.)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Review: Grand Tea Baihao Yinzhen 2009 (White Down Silver Needle)

White Painting (Three Panels), 1951, Robert Rauschenberg
, via SFMoma.org

As readers of my blog know, I am not much for white tea, because my palate is a bit too barbaric and longs for more robust, in-your-face teas. So I face the cup of Baihao Yinzhen, provided very kindly by Grand Tea, with a bit of caution. I am convinced that there's something here I am simply missing, and this is part of my ongoing quest to discover how to make a decent cup of white tea that I will actually enjoy. Wish me well.

Here is the description of the tea, found on the Grand Tea Web site:

First Harvest White Tea (白毫銀針) - Loose leaf

White Down Silver Needle (Baihao Yinzhen) is one of the finest white tea produced in the districts of Fujian province. This tea is delicate and has a subtle, fresh sweetness.

I'll direct you to the Web site, if you wish to read more about what they say of the tea's health and beauty benefits.

The Grand Tea Web site tells me to steep at around 71C or so, and for only a minute. Surprisingly short! I would have thought a longer steeping time would be more appropriate for such a low steeping temperature. Let's get into it, then.

I wonder, if tea trees were allowed to bloom, if they would take on the floral aroma of these leaves. Actually, they are really the buds of the tree: pointed needles with silver-gray hair over the olive-green flesh.

This tea is perfectly clear, with a liquor that is pale gold, without a cloud in the sky. I drink this from a JING Tea clear cup and saucer, which seems to highlight the clarity and shininess of the tea itself. Quite lovely. When I bring the tea to my nose, I find the aroma is quite faintly floral. The mouthfeel of the tea is pleasant enough. The tea's flavor is quite subtle: merest hints of flowers, a touch of pine, perhaps-- like a wisp of mist on a lake in the morning: faint, subtle enough to make me wonder if it's all in my imagination.

As is usual, while I'm drinking the first cup, the already-steeped tea in the pot continues to oxidize, with the complex chemical compounds combining and recombining, causing that second cup to be much more complex and nuanced than the first. And so it is, here. While the first cup left me grasping, the second cup's flavor came forward more directly. There's the slightest drying in the mouth and a good, throat-coating mouthfeel. The aroma is still too subtle for me to easily observe, except again for a hint of some kind of floral sweetness. People suggest it's the aroma of peony, but as I'm not too familiar with that scent, I'll pass on further description. And the flavor: mown hay, and the echo of some honeyed sweetness. Again, notably subtle. The tea's huigan, which means the sweet aftertaste, is enjoyable, because it kind of sneaks up on you and whacks you hard on the back of the head with a feather. Sweet, like a hot summertime meadow, remembered rather than being experienced directly.

I'm sorry my wife is not here to drink this tea, because she would tell you that it is refreshing and smooth, with an enjoyable lightness that seems designed for her delicate palate. Then she'd demand my cup and finish it for me.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Life, Love, and Li Shan

Last week, Aura Teas sent me a package of a number of "gift" teas, some of which are samples only and are not necessarily available for sale on their Web site. We had the opportunity to open one up and share it with a family member, who is going through a crisis. I include below my letter of thanks to Aura Teas, which I sent earlier this morning.

Tea is not something that really solves any problems in life, but it gives us the opportunity to share something beautiful with people we love, and by painstaking care in hospitality (all that trouble taken in brewing as perfect a cup of tea as I am able), I can in some measure to show someone how important she is to my wife and me, and how deeply we care about the well-being of her and her family.

My letter to my contact at Aura Teas follows here.

Hi, and thank you so much for your gift of the lovely teas.

[Redacted] was visiting during a quite horrible family crisis, and we fed her and afterward served her your Li Shan oolong (about a half-dozen steeps, gongfu style, until she couldn't take more), which was a great comfort.

It's amazing, how a gift of tea from you to me became a gift of tea (and love) from us to her, a way of saying, "We love you. We are looking out for you. We are taking time to listen to you. We are pulling out the good stuff to show you that you are important to us."

Obviously, tea didn't solve any problems, but it did help us express our love and concern for a family member in need, and for this I thank you.

Very sincerely,

Steven Knoerr
The 39 Steeps

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Review Series Pu-erh 5: "Epsilon" by Yunnan Sourcing

I am excited about the newest sample, ε, which is the final one in the tasting event hosted by Hobbes at The Half Dipper blog. He has identified this as 2009 Yunzhihuan/Ruicaoxiang "Banzhan Chunqing."

This pu is pretty heavily compressed, and it took some doing to separate out the leaves in the beeng. I thought the aroma was quite subdued coming from the package. After the leaves are first steeped, they remain quite quiet about it, and don't have a heavy or terribly exotic aroma. It's pleasant enough, with that tobacco aroma dominating, and a lightly floral texture to it.

Rinse: 10s

First steeping: 13s
The epsilon pu-erh is quite assertive, right off the bat. A bit of bitterness balanced nicely with a sweet quality that makes it very drinkable. Lovely yellow-gold color, light and pure.

Second steeping: 12s
Sweet tobacco, a hint of smokiness. Very crisp flavor, bright and clean. There's a greenness to this, but not much of what I would think of as the huigan, the aftertaste-- the tea remains quite constant in flavor from the moment it hits my tongue, with little variation in the ensuing seconds.

Third steeping: 13s
I'm aware in my mind of Michael J. Coffey's advice not to write about what you're tasting, because it diminishes one's ability to remember the flavors later. Well, I do what I can: I try to taste first, just experience the nondiscursive element; and then later to give voice to it, if I can. This tea has a touch of bitterness, still (and enough that my seven-year-old boy found it a bit too much for him). However, nicely complex, with a sort of leatheriness, perhaps, in the flavor, and a quite sweet burn a few moments after the tea is up.

Fourth steeping: 15s
Astringent and drying, with a full, robust mouthfeel that coats the tongue. The bitterness is still present, but not dominant; and it fades into a nicely sweet tobacco flavor. I wouldn't really think of this as a sweet pu-erh, but it's complex and fun to drink.

Fifth steeping: 17s
Getting a mite twitchy, I must say, after the fifth steeping (on top of the several pots of Darjeeling earlier today). My little boy says, "It has a good texture. It's a little, tiny, tiny, tiny bit bitter." He's seven years old, by the way. He's right: good texture, and the slightest bit bitter. Maybe he needs less pu-erh, because he hasn't stopped talking (about his comic book, The Battle Begins, which he is writing) in the last 10 minutes.

Sixth steeping
I am continuing this steeping onward, as I have with others. If I feel the need to add anything, I shall do so as an addendum later. I'm very much enjoying this particular pu-erh, with its lovely tobacco smell and pretty bright complexity.

This series of tea tastings has been, for me, a great introduction into the world of pu-erh. Along the way, I've made a couple new tea friends, which has been very gratifying. Honestly, for the last couple years I've been very hesitant to try the genre of pu-erh, because of all the pretty terrible press it's received, what with all the faked beengs being sold at ridiculous prices, and the near certainty that I would ruin my palate by learning about pu-erh the wrong way: by drinking lousy tea, made the wrong way, setting up incorrect assumptions. For me, this tasting is invaluable, because it allows me to check my tastebuds against those of other tea drinkers, and to try to understand what they're experiencing as well, in a context in which I'm allowed to simply enjoy myself without guarding myself against being scammed or something by a dishonest pu-erh salesman. Additionally, I got to share this with my family and allow them to have fun learning right along with me. Brilliant fun.

Thank you, Hobbes of The Half Dipper, and Yunnan Sourcing, for opening the door for me to the world of pu-erh.

The above photos: antique green bowl by The Haeger Potteries; Yixing pot by Art Zisha, Zhuxinnan Products, via Bret at Tea Goober; antique tea trays (which perfectly match the orange-gold of the pu-erh, and which nicely complement the green bowl) via my Great-Aunt Lydia Behm; and Tiger Drill hero image by my seven-year-old son. That's his hand in the picture at top. And buster, you haven't seen anything if you haven't gotten a look at his newest creation, "Explosive Cowboy Man."

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Review Series Pu-erh 4: "Delta" by Yunnan Sourcing

Today I am tasting Δ (Delta), the fourth of five in Hobbes's pu-erh tasting series. As with the rest of the series, I am imitating the video I found on the Wrong Fu Cha Web site, in which a bowl is filled with hot water, and the teapot is brewed inside it, helping maintain high temperature throughout the steeping process. I don't do this because I am definitively saying this is the best way to do gongfu, but rather because I found the video to be engaging and fun-looking, so off I went. The results have been enjoyable, and I hope for the best. I'm writing this instead of sleeping, using tea to get me through a very long night of work. Sometimes, it's better to power through than to sleep. I hope this is one of those times.

And my standard disclaimer: I am not a pu-erh aficionado, and so if you're here expecting an expert's eye overlooking the leaf, wringing from it the secrets of its making, you're in the wrong place. However, if you're new to this type of tea, as I am, perhaps this will convince you to search out some pu-erh of your own and give it a whirl.

I drank this tea over the course of two days, with something like a dozen or so short steeps, ranging from about 10s to up to several minutes. The tea provided me with plenty of energy to get through a particularly difficult set of deadlines I faced. The pu-erh itself had a pleasant tobacco shop aroma, with a flavor that changed over time: starting a touch bitter, moving into a sweetly burnt-caramel sensation, and with quite a bit of complexity. If you have not tried pu-erh, or the Chinese way of making deconstructing a pot of tea by breaking it down into many short steeps, I would encourage you to try. For coffee drinkers, I would think pu-erh would provide you with something you could get your tastebuds around, so to speak: lots of solidity and "oomph," and with quite a bit of buoyancy in mood.

Hic Sunt Dracones

What follows are my detailed tasting notes, which you don't need to read unless you have quite the attention span. I am learning as I go, and this helps me track my experience for future buying decisions (and for general knowledge). Beyond Here Be Dragons and Unduly Long Descriptions of Brown Leaf Juice.

Rinse: 10s
Quick rinse of my new zisha pot, which I picked up during Bret's sale on his Web site, Tea Goober. Bret, thank you for the lovely pot. After the rinse, the leaves take on a rich, darkly tobacco scent, which promises much loveliness.

Steeping 1: 10s
A touch bitter the first cup, so probably a 5s steeping would have served me better for this first steeping. HOWEVER, the second cup of the first steeping (even at this early stage) starts to show me the waking complexity of this cup. Michael Coffey would rebuke me for trying to put this into words, but I want to convey how interesting this pu is to me: it's got a brilliant flavor, but there are so many layers of flavor that reward me when I close my eyes to sip.

The aroma reminds me of the Iwan Ries tobacco my Grandpa Allison used to smoke in his home in Effingham, Illinois. When I'd visit, his immaculate house always carried this sweet-tobacco scent, which I associate with his pipe collection. He never smoked around me (on account of the asthma I suffered under as a kid), but the sweetness of this leaf became one of my Favorite Things. I'd sniff around his pipes and the pouches of leaf he would have on his pipe stand, the wood of which was redolent of tobacco in and of itself. Please don't ask me which specific Iwan Ries tobacco he would smoke, because my memory doesn't carry so far. Strange, how drinking Chinese tea can make me miss my Grandfather.

While I was writing the above, I was struck by the huigan, which is the Chinese term for the sweet aftertaste that rises up in the throat, retronasally. In this case, it's light and compelling, very enjoyable.

Steeping 2: 12s
In spite of my desire to pop that tea out quickly, I just couldn't move enough. All the descriptions of gongfu cha on the Web sites fail to mention how hot everything is, and how fragile. Tea pot burning fingers! Do not drop tea pot, which you just bought. Pour out gently, even while fingers are uncomfortably hot. Suddenly, 5 seconds becomes 12. Chinese people must have fingers made of titanium, to be able to withstand all this hot water. The aroma rising from my wenxianbei (aroma cup) is like caramel, or burnt sugar, and sweet cotton candy. Which are all kind of the same thing, I realize. There's a rich mouthfeel that accompanies that bitterness-- which, naturally, would have been avoided with a slightly shorter steep. So sue me. Happily, I don't mind a touch of bitterness in my tea, though I know it's not truly optimal. As before, the second cup (and subsequent) are not nearly as bitter as at first, so either I'm acclimating to the bitterness, or there's some process in the fairness cup that is mellowing the flavor. My enjoyment rests primarily in the aftertaste, which is complex and lovely, and keeps opening up as the seconds tick.

Steeping 3: 12s
I just cannot pour fast enough, and 12 seconds seems to be about the amount of time it takes me to get the hot kettle back to the stove and then be able to pour off the tea. I do not have a tableside electric kettle, nor a charcoal brazier of the type favored by Imen Shan at Tea Habitat. Nevertheless, I soldier on.
Here, the tea is taking on a much richer aspect in both mouthfeel and distinctiveness of flavor. I wish someone were here to taste this with me, but it's midnight, and I'm trying to energize to work through until morning. There's tobacco, and a tingly mouthfeel I associate with some type of menthol. The orange liquor has remained quite constant. There's a drying aspect to the mouthfeel that has me wishing for a tall glass of ice water.

Steeping 4: 10s
Ah, I'm in the zone, getting in a shorter steep, at last. I begin to understand the wisdom of this type of steeping method. By keeping the pot submerged in quite hot water, it allows the leaves to stay at a nicely warm temperature, no matter how long (within reason) I take between steeps. It probably wouldn't matter as much if I were in of a larger party, were the tea flowed more quickly. But by myself, I think it helps.
At this point, there is a richer sweetness developing, which I find surprising. I've gotten used to the flavor, but now as the bitterness recedes, these other flavors appear. Seriously, lovely, and the best steeping yet. Tobacco is less pronounced, and other complexities rise up.

Steeping 5: 10s
Sigh. I need to get to work, as midnight has arrived. While I waited for the water to heat this last time, I read through accounts of sea serpents (click the map picture above), with lots of amusing and fascinating images of sea monsters, as drawn by cartographers and artists a couple centuries past.
And what does that have to do with tea? Well, tea has water in it. And tea came by ships. And... well, nothing, really. Anyway, the pu-erh: The tobacco flavor has taken on a sharper aspect now, with a smokier character, yet with notes of fruit, like apple or melon, floating on top of the heavier aroma. Very lovely.

I'll continue this journal as I go, in between bouts of work, which I expect to be doing throughout the night. I hope the Qi, or the caffeine+theanine, will help me stay alert and focused.

Steeping 6: 15s
Still going strong, with a beautiful aroma that drifts from the fairness pitcher as I work. A slightly sour honey flavor, with a kind of hay overtone is evident. Really nice.

Steepings 7 through 12 (or so): various lengths
I really rather do like this pu-erh, so I kept it going on into the next day. Perhaps at its 12th steeping or so, I moved on. The tea provided me with the energy to get through the deadlines I needed to finish, and then some. The pu's flavor and aroma remained pretty steady, without much variation after about the 7th steeping.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Review Series Pu-erh 3: "Gamma" by Yunnan Sourcing

And this our life,
exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees,
books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones,
and good in every thing.

Drinking tea often sets me to musing. In my last pu-erh tasting, I made reference to the sophistication of this pastime, and how oh-so-nuanced it all was. But here, I think almost the exact opposite: that I'm experiencing something primal, something ancient, perfectly tuned to nature and her wildly exuberant fancies.

With this tasting, I have been enjoying thoroughly pu-erh of a quality that I had not experienced before.

For the gamma bing, I followed roughly the same method of tea preparation as with the previous: I kept a large bowl of very hot water, in which I mostly submerged my teapot and prepared my tea with a fairly large amount of leaf and many short steeps.

Once I rinsed the leaves, they took on a pungent, complex, almost chocolate aroma, which I found intoxicating. I had hoped the aroma would carry into the cup, but alas, they diverged.

At the very first, the tea leaves seemed hesitant-- or, perhaps I should say, I was unable to bring out a very strong flavor. But then . . . well, I'll let you read my notes.

Steeping 2: 12s
Amen, hallelujah. The second steeping smells like Pau D'arco, and like the Forest of Arden. The first sip of the cup was truly weak; but then after it rested a few moments in the fairness pitcher and was poured, the flavor awoke: sharp, rich mouthfeel, indescribably complex. Still a bit on the light side.

From there, the tea progressed through an entirely pleasant session, with a beautifully woodsy and airy cup. Throughout the experience, the tea remained fairly on the light side, which I found surprising-- remember, my previous experience with pu-erh had been with shupu tuochas, which were pretty intense and rather heavy by comparison. This was almost wispy, with this woodsiness (that Forest of Arden aroma) that I described earlier.

Thank you again, Hobbes, for a lovely tasting event. I'm trying to keep up! But, alas, a too-busy schedule put me behind. I'll be adding my tasting notes for the last couple samples in the next couple days.

Here are Hobbes's introductory remarks about the identity of this mystery pu-erh, which is 2009 Yunzhiyuan/Ruicaoxiang "Bulangshanyun." Please read the rest, and enjoy!
"Gamma" is the "Bulangshanyun", which by coincidence or design is the same name as the dreadful "Bulangshanyun" from Puerh Shop that I lamented a few days ago. Yunnan Sourcing notes that this cake was made from 2006 maocha from Mannonzhai [winding-lane village], near Hekai, some 20km north of Banzhang.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Review Series Pu-erh 2: "Beta" by Yunnan Sourcing

"Fear is the only darkness."

The beauty of gongfu is the opportunity to drink tea as you read a book: in progressive chapters with a beginning, a middle, and an end. -- The 39 Steeps Compendium of Brilliant yet Rather Commonplace Musings.

I freely admit, my gongfu is white belt, and I thus have some trepidation about adding my observations about Yunnan Sourcing's β sample, as part of The Half Dipper's special pu-erh tasting event. Nevertheless, Grasshopper, I will dare to go where tea masters should slap me silly.

For more of background on pu-erh tea, including some introductory material, please skim my other thoughts here. In the past I had only experienced shu pu-erh, which means the leaves had been oxidized in such to imitate of how green (sheng) pu-erh tastes after a few years of fermentation. This is an entirely different experience.

β is a green pu-erh, pressed in 2009 and distributed by Yunnan Sourcing, a reputable dealer in pu-erh. The cake was pressed quite tightly, but in such a way that I could easily separate the individual leaves, jigsaw-puzzle style, from one another. I noticed quite a bit of silvery tips among the darker leaf. The attractive aroma is like sweet, Southern barbecue: honey, smoke, hot spice. After the initial rinse, the leaf took on a warm, tobacco and mulch scent.

As I did in the α pu-erh sample, I roughly imitated the Chouzhou pu-erh preparation style found here. I have taken extensive notes on the multiple steepings I enjoyed, but I'll summarize them here for the sake of brevity.

After the rinse, the first four steepings (ranging from 10s to 15s) revealed a richly golden-orange colored liquor with a distinctly sweet green herb and tobacco flavor, along with some bitterness (which may easily be attributed to my gongfu ability). Upon the fifth steeping, however, the tea had arrived. The bitterness was gone, and it left a lovely, honey-sweet, herb-and-tobacco note; it reminded me of a decent white wine, in its delicate boldness and its balance between dryness and fruit.

Please feel free to skip this part, because it's been summarized above. I do wish to preserve my notes here, however, for reference.

Rinse: 10s

Steeping 1: 13s
I originally intended this to be a 10-second steeping, but because my pot has a seven-second pour and I started pouring right as I counted to 10, I realized I had oversteeped slightly. Ah, well. The golden-orange, transparent liquor (thought with some leaf dust at the bottom of the fairness pitcher) is honey-sweet, but also has a bitterness at the back of the throat, which I attribute to my oversteeping. A green, tobacco flavor is primary, though without any smokiness. Light, sharp, bright. This is enjoyable and memorable.

Steeping 2: 11s
I didn't know what to expect from a green pu-erh, but I suspected it would be very harsh (per other descriptions I had read). This has probably the same acerbic quality I find in many first-flush Darjeelings, and a fair bit of bitterness, as well. But it's balanced against the honey-like sweetness in the liquor. I have no idea whatsoever how this would age, but as a self-drinker, I must say it's enjoyable enough, and has quite a bit of sophistication, of complexity. The green, sweet herbal quality becomes very evident in the huigan [sweet aftertaste, primarily recognized retronasally: that is, from the back of the throat, rising up to the nasal passages], after the bitterness has toned down on the tongue. Now, I hasten to add, a seasoned gongfu master would doubtless be able to massage the sweetness out of the leaf and avoid the bitterness; but I must do with my own level of knowledge, and this is what I get.

Steeping 3
At this point, I am noticing again a slight sensitivity in my stomach to the green pu-erh, which I'm counterbalancing with French bread. As I sip and nibble, I am thinking of what a sophisticated pleasure this is, like Cuban cigars. Not that I have ever had a cigar, Cuban or otherwise. Sadly, musing thus broadcasts how unsophisticated I am, because the truly sophisticated would never think such a boorish thing. (And do notice how many times I can use the word, sophisticated, in a paragraph.)

(If you want Tony Santana to roll cigars for your wedding, do click here.)

Steeping 4: 15s
The green/tobacco flavors are still very strong, with that sweet aftertaste growing more distinct as time goes on, though with that bitter edge (not entirely unpleasant).

Steeping 5: 13s
Bingo. Suddenly, it seems the true quality of the tea has arrived. Sweet, light, beautiful tobacco-and-green herbs flavor. The first four steepings now seem like the time spent in the restaurant bar, waiting for the table, and I could drink this all day long. It's smooth and bright, just about perfectly to my liking. Where did the bitterness go? Suddenly, it's all sweetness and mild astringency, a bit like a fresh, slightly fruity but dry white wine. With the bitterness in abeyance, I begin to notice the full mouthfeel, which coats my entire mouth and throat. Truly nice.

Steeping 6: 14s
Crisp and light, without a trace of bitterness. Gorgeous. Writing summary now.

Steeping 7: 15s
Again, very crisp, like a white wine. After all these steepings, I'm feeling quite good energy and focus. I rather wish I could start my day with this feeling. The aftertaste reminds me of a good Darjeeling, with the pleasantly acerbic lightness coupled with that sweet quality. It interests me to find that highgrown Darjeelings and pu-erh can produce such a similar huigan, and I don't really know why that would be. At this point, I can see the tea settles into this sweet dryness, and seems to be maintaining that quite nicely. I will keep steeping this, but suspending the notes here. If I feel it necessary to add something later, I will do so in an update.

Thank you for reading!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review Series Pu-erh 1: "Alpha" by Yunnan Sourcing

I am delighted to be a part of a Pu-erh tea tasting, hosted by Hobbes at The Half Dipper blog, with the leaf generously provided by Yunnan Sourcing. Yunnan Sourcing has been getting some very favorable attention of late as a helpful source for Pu-erh teas, which originate in this region of China. And if you haven't read Hobbes's limpid prose, please wander through his blog and enjoy yourselves.

[UPDATE: Hobbes posted about this pu-erh here, and it is called the Yunzhiyuan Ruicaoxiang "Yiwuzhidao Guafengzhai." Ironically, that was exactly what I was going to guess.]

A quick bit of background: I am not a pu-erh aficionado, but rather a passionate tea enthusiast, and so I cannot identify which year's vintage of which factory a pu-erh might be. My tea life has been spent steeped (so to speak) primarily in the Himalayan teas of Darjeeling, Nilgiri, Sikkim, and Nepal, and I discovered pu-erh only a couple years ago.

Now, as I spent time reading an heroic amount about the broad topic of pu-erh, I discovered that the "pu-erh boom" had just gone bust, and that a dismaying amount of counterfeit pu was floating around, muddying up the waters so much that a newbie like myself had very little chance of getting his hands on a verifiably decent bit of this leaf that I would be able to afford; and besides, I had no idea how to prepare it or what to expect. Because I did not want to drink low-quality pu-erh that would inhibit my ability to develop an informed palate, I stayed away.

Cut ahead to this last year, and I've now had several examples of pu-erh, which I consumed happily, knowing full well that I had no idea what I was doing, nor the quality of the leaf I was drinking. A fun (though not terribly educational) time was had by all, and my pu-erh adventures can be found here.

When Hobbes sent out an open invitation to be part of a pu-erh tasting, I jumped at the chance. At last, an opportunity presented itself to learn something in the presence of those vastly more knowledgeably than I. I anxiously awaited the package, and when one arrived (with return address in Chinese characters), I tore it open . . . and found that this is a blind tasting, and the bags are labeled, "Alpha," "Beta," . . . "Epsilon." In a way, this is a good thing, because it throws me back on my palate, my observation, and my sense of adventure.

I recently watched a video in which the proprietor of the "Wrong Fu Cha" blog made a pot of pu-erh in the Chaozhou gongfu style, which involved keeping the Yixing pot in a vessel of hot water to maintain temperature. You can watch the video here. I was glad to see tea preparation done in a way I could conceivably imitate, and so I did. The only thing the video does not show is how often it's necessary to empty out the big bowl as the water cools and needs to be replenished. When you're doing 6 or 8 or 10 or more steepings, be prepared to dump and refill any number of times.

Dry leaf: pretty well compressed, and the leaves came apart with a bit of effort. I didn't want to break the leaves, making the resultant brew more bitter, so I took my time with this, separating the leaves like pieces of a puzzle. The dry leaves are quite green (sheng, I believe), not black, so this is not a cooked pu-erh (shu), but rather one that is intended for long-term storage, perhaps? I would imagine so. They have a bit of silver, a bit of woody stem to it. The aroma is like blackberries, to my nose; and a bit like the oak smoke campfires I grew up with, when we vacationed in Michigan.

As longtime readers of this blog (both of me) know, I write fairly extensive tasting notes here, which I use to help me remember the experiences and make purchasing decisions. Do feel free to skip to the bottom, where you can find my OVERALL IMPRESSIONS. Kind of like skipping all the boring plot and character development and going straight to the epilogue, when skimming a book right before a test.

Rinse: 10s
I use a quick rinse to awaken the leaves, then pour off into my wenxianbei [aroma cup set] and fairness pitcher, and get everything ready for the real action to follow.

1st steeping: 15s
Lightly aromatic-- again, like the campfire aroma of the dry pu-erh leaves, and like blackberries and oak impressions. What a surprisingly light, rich flavor for a first steeping. I know green pu-erhs are reportedly quite bitter and harsh, but this is not like that at all. (First time, as I mentioned, too much leaf did lead to a bitter experience, but this time it's great.) This stuff is addictive. The berry and smoke notes are superseded by a roasted honey taste in the huigan, which is the sweet aftertaste that Hobbes has explained thoroughly in his blog. This cup of tea is a lovely, pure yellow-gold color, not the deep brownish-orange I have experienced with other pu-erhs of my acquaintance.

As a side note, sipping this reminds me a bit of the first time I had a high-quality Lapsang Souchong, produced in Dong Mu village, where this type of tea originated. While I had had LS before, I had never had the real deal, and the difference was telling. Here, too, the gulf between this beeng and the little tuochas I've had before is quite wide. The subtlety is pleasing, and I begin to understand what all the fuss is about.

And by the way, Hobbes, if you have braved my torpid prose and prolix description this far: Thank you again for your great advice on enjoying tea, which you wrote a couple months ago. I would by no means feel brave enough to present my thoughts about this pu-erh, much less one presented to me in a blind tasting like this, had you not written so encouragingly about simply enjoying the experience and not allowing other, more knowledgeable writers drive me into silence about the topic. While my gongfu might not be black belty enough to be informative to more experienced drinkers, perhaps people who have not drunk pu-erh might find this helpful, and it might encourage them to try this strange and surprising genre of tea.

2nd steeping: 15s
Still, the first impression is, "campfire." This is really a very specific sense memory, which comes from countless hours poking sticks into fires made primarily of oak hardwood, and cooking marshmallows, and being allowed to play outside after dark. In other words, an entirely pleasant memory evoked by the smooth, fruity woodiness of this tea. The flavor is quite consistent with the first steeping, though with a slightly more drying, acerbic quality and a warming in my stomach. I am told green pu-erh can be a bit rough on the stomach for those not accustomed, so I hope this isn't going to pose a problem. I would be interested to find out what Hobbes thinks of this, and how he thinks it will mature over time.

3rd steeping: 10s
The overall impression is this hardwood campfire smoke, with a lingering sweet vanilla and blackberry flavor hiding at the back of the throat. I'm delighted I had enough of this tea to try a second steeping, because this experience is rich, quite fun, and provides for a lot of surprises. Vanilla notes? Not what I expected. (Perhaps the vanilla is really how my senses translate the sweetness and smoothness, which is overlaid on top of the drying sharpness. Sweet, smooth, dry, sharp. I can see my description makes no sense whatsoever. As we said in high school, "I guess you had to be there.") The pu-erh has a really meaty mouthfeel, which coats my entire mouth and throat.

4th steeping: 13s
Denser minerality to the taste this time. Minerality is the word I'm using to describe the shift from a smoky flavor to something sharper, brighter. The woodiness is still there, but mostly to be found in my wenxianbei [aroma cup], which is a tiny cup that can be held up to the nose and sniffed. When smelling the aroma cup, the lighter, head-note smells seem to arrive first, to be followed by the middle and then lower notes. This has something to do with the rate at which the different catechins and flavinoids and whatnot (for tea has a very complex chemistry) are released into the atmosphere. Anyway, the greenness of the tea is more pronounced now, as the tea begins to hit its stride.

5th steeping: 15s
I've read that a proper pu flight doesn't really start until the fifth steeping. It's here that most of the storage aromas are gone, and the true character of the tea begins to be revealed. I've read that some tea drinkers will just toss the first four steepings as unworthy of attention, but I'd hate to miss out on any part of the experience. On the other hand, if a tea is 20 or 30 (or 60?!) steepings in duration, at that point you might as well skip to the good stuff. To me, this tastes of roasted honey, and a very high, light fruity note that seems to come up from behind, after the richer, darker note: like a flute and an oboe hanging in the air after the rest of the orchestra has fallen into silence.

I am really liking this.

6th steeping:
Decidedly lighter. The aroma is much harder to discern, but the flavor and the mouthfeel/texture is still quite bright. Again, I would probably describe this as having a metallic quality, which I'm using to try to convey a complexity and sharpness. Lovely flavor at the very back of my throat (necessary to slurp a bit to cause this experience to occur), of blackberries again, and woodsmoke, but now the sweet honey has receded. When my tastebuds are allowed to relax for a minute or two after sipping, a lovely perfume rises up in the throat, floral and delicately light. It's very easy to drink, very welcoming.

7th steeping: 17s
I wish, dear reader, you were here with me, because right now you'd be smelling the delicious aroma from the cup of pu-erh, which greets me upon each steeping. This no longer makes me think of a campfire, but rather a delicate brightness.

This tea can clearly go on a bit further, but I am going to suspend the review here because my stomach is starting to feel a touch tender. I'll update tomorrow, perhaps, if I have it in me to keep this steeping going later tonight. At any rate, what a lovely, delicate, complex tea this is. I have no skill to be able to tell you where it comes from, but I can say this is easily the best pu-erh I've ever drunk. I can't wait for the rest of these pu packages, so I can start to compare notes among them. Though it's evening, I feel energetic and relaxed from the tea. Perhaps it's Qi, the Chinese concept of the divine energy that flows to me from the tea; maybe it's a combination of theanine and caffeine. Either way, I feel great (except for mild upset of my stomach) and look forward to a good evening. Thank you again, Hobbes, for allowing me to be a part of this tea tasting.

Cheers, all!