Sunday, April 26, 2009

REVIEW: Teas Etc. Bai Mu Dan Loose Leaf Organic White Tea

Whenever I try out a new tea, I want to know as much as I can find out about it-- well, as much as I can find out in the time it takes to prepare and drink it. I found something at Wikipedia (which, as everyone knows, is sure to be complete). Please notice the description of how this tea is harvested and processed-- very exacting and specific:

The processing rules require this tea only be picked between March 15 and April 10. It is not picked on days that may be raining or if the dew has not dried or if there is frost on the ground. No purple buds are allowed and the stems must not be too long or too short. Partially open leaves or leaves damaged by wind, handling, or insects are rejected and put into a lower grade. The best Bai Mu Dan is produced using the two leaves and a bud proportion and is naturally or mechanically withered to produce leaves that are not black or red but green in color. And only pink or purple fairies are allowed to pick the tea leaves, but never on moonlit nights when Oberon is causing mischief. [Okay, I may have added that last bit. --Ed.]
White teas, as many people know, are as near to an unprocessed tea as one can get. The teas are steamed very early, keeping the teas from oxidizing into its darker cousins. Bai Mu Dan is often called White Peony, or even (and more enticingly) White Hairy Monkey tea.

Bai Mu Dan is described this way on the Teas Etc. Web site:

USDA Certified Organic Bai Mu Dan is truly a treat for the palate with subtle notes of sweet cream butter and light, pleasing vegetal notes.

Grown on the misty mountains of Fujian province in China, the downy silver buds and fresh young leaves are soft and intoxicatingly fragrant. The resulting liquor is a beautiful golden yellow with a more robust texture than your average white tea. The taste is deliciously rich, sweet cream butter with light, pleasing vegetal notes. Slightly astringent, it leaves behind just enough of the smooth sweetness to make you anxious for more. Over ice, this bold white tea plays coy, leaving behind the vegetal notes for an exquisitely refreshing taste experience.

The Teas Etc. Web site goes on to suggest steeping at 80C for 3-6 minutes. Okay, I'll settle on 4.5 minutes, to split the difference, and I will use Great-Grandma's Japanese porcelain pot. The leaves are pretty large, so 2 teaspoons per cup.

These leaves very in color from silvery-gray, to deep forest green, to crisp Spring green. It's mainly buds with tiny, white hairs on it, but I also see broken dark-green leaves and some stem in the leaves. They have a nice crunchy stiffness to them-- no sogginess or moisture. (What? You don't take a nibble of the raw leaves every now on then?) The uncooked leaves smell of hay and grass, with a little bit of floweriness. The spent leaves, when hot, do not have much aroma at all, except for a slightly mineral scent.


My wife shouted from the other room: "It's good. Light, smooth, not repulsive." (laughs) Really, I should ask her permission before putting her comments here, or risk her propensity to sarcasm when she knows I'm going to quote her.

The liquor, or soup, is a beautifully transparent cup that has a lovely amber-pink-peach color. I find the flavor to be a bit elusive for my taste. I understand that the Bai Mu Dan (or Pai Mu Tan) teas are loved by many because the taste is supposed to be more robust than some other varieties of White teas. However, for me, it's a stretch because the flavor is like a voice speaking quietly from the next room: very soft and muted, and a little hard to understand.

The cup, as my wife said, is quite smooth, with a slight dryness to the mouthfeel and a very faint burn at the back of my throat. I think it's a stretch to call this, "intoxicatingly fragrant," as it says on the Teas Etc. Web site, though it's pleasant enough.

This is a very restrained cup of tea that must be paid close attention to for me to notice it at all. I'm not sure if it's because this is the 2008 spring tea, and it has lost its "oomph" in the entire year since it was plucked, or because it requires different methods of preparation.

I have enough leaves to try this tea a number of times, and I will experiment with longer steeping times to draw out that "more robust flavor" that is supposed to be the characteristic that defines this bai mu dan, and separates it from other classes of white teas. I shall update when I do, to see if I can draw out more from this tea, which such exacting care and attention to painstaking details were employed to produce.

Thank you, Teas Etc., for an opportunity to taste your tea.

I tried the tea again tonight. Same parameters, except I steeped the tea just over 6 minutes this time. Now I begin to understand this tea. It's still smooth in the mouthfeel, which I didn't expect; but now it has a bite that catches my attention. (Ah! A smooth bite. Makes perfect sense.) The Bai Mu Dan remains delicate, but at the greater steeping length, the flavor is more defined.