Friday, May 29, 2009

REVIEW: Fang Tea, Medium LiSan Oolong


When I was a little boy, perhaps 10 years old, my sister Kate (the flautist formerly known as Kathy) and I went to Ponderosa Steakhouse, which we walked a number of blocks to get to. It was a big deal, and we had to cross the Big Street to get there. Ponderosa was a buffet-style steak restaurant, not at all fancy. I remember they had vanilla pudding with whipped cream on top, which I thought was the bomb. Anyway, I clearly remember the two of us sidling up to the buffet ordering line, and I noticed something I'd never seen nor heard of before: Teriyaki Chicken.

This is the first Culinary Moment I can recall. My taste buds exploded as I experienced a flavor palate I was absolutely unfamiliar with. I can remember even now the raw amazement I felt as this foreign-tasting, gloriously new thing was introduced to me. This was a turning point for me, one that changed forever the way I view food.

From that point on, whenever we'd go to a restaurant, I'd make sure to order something I'd never heard of before. I didn't like to read too carefully the menu descriptions, because I didn't like to spoil the surprise. Sashimi! Pho! Cambodian lime chicken soup! Bratwurst! Veal canneloni! Chicken croquettes Pozharski! Borscht! Beef carpaccio! Blue cheese! The only thing that keeps me from eating out every meal is my pocketbook. One of the great delights in my life that moment when I am introduced to an entirely new taste that my palette has never imagined.

And this brings me to tea. ("Finally!") One of the glories of the last year of my life is that I've been having this experience again, and again, and again. This makes me a somewhat uneven reviewer, because I'm approaching these teas with an open heart but not often enough experience to apply a jaded standard, "Well, this is a pleasant enough [insert tea here], but I really liked last year's much better."

And so I approach Fang Gourmet Tea's "Medium LiSan Oolong" in this spirit. Having tasted it the first time, my taste buds opened up to an entirely new profile of flavor I've never thought of before. This is so unlike other teas I'm familiar with, I'm absolutely delighted to have something new to indulge in. I am having the best time, right now, as I sip and type. Something amazing and new! LiSan Oolong!

Last week, Fang Tea in New York was kind enough to send me a package of this tea. I knew it was going to be special, so I waited until I had the right moment to unwrap the package. Fang's packaging was quite smart, with the tea leaves protected in a vacuum-packed foil packet, which was inside the tin. The leaves appear to have a medium level of oxidation (hint: the word, medium, in the tea's name), which implies a certain level of body and complexity.

To research this subcategory of oolong tea, I read the blog by Winnie, who is with Teance, a high-end San Francisco tea shop. Winnie's blog, Tea Adventures, gave me the following:

Li Shan means Pear Mountain, and in the past, the most sought after fruits, particularly pears, came from there. Today, such famous heights as Da Yu Ling, and Fu Shou Shan, has dwarfed the fruits and made tea the most profitable and sought-after crop from this region. Li Shan oolongs generally refer to elevations of 1700-2000 meters,... The mountains are impossibly dangerous, downright scary in its steepness. One look at the prospects of tumbling down the hill from harvesting makes one understand all the fuss.

She goes on to write:

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.
Okay, check. Great tea, often at least partially faked up by opportunists. Now, in a lovely note in my Fang Tea package, Kyle Shen, the proprietor of Fang Tea, wrote:
Pear Mountain, or LiSan, is located in a highland climate region with an altitude of more than 2,000 meters. Tea quality from this region is especially superior, and LiSan Oolong has the highest index among the Taiwan high mountain oolong tea.

I hope you'll enjoy this tea as much as I do.
So I'm primed for this tea to be a pretty special experience. While I typically focus on the Darjeeling and other Himalayan teas, I have slowly been coming to truly love these Chinese-style teas. From Fang Tea's Web site, I find much the same information provided in the letter. Fang doesn't detail the name of the tea master, or tea farm, from which they get the tea. Would it pass the Teance test of authenticity? I can't be certain, but at this point, I would certainly guess that it does.

So I opened up the Hao De blog, which gives a very detailed description of a good way to steep Oolongs. I do want to derive the greatest pleasure I can from this experience-- I would hate to mess it up because of my own lack of knowledge-- so I follow his directions to the letter. The results are delightful, amazing.

The largish brown-and-greenish leaves are in big, complicated wads. When the package was cut open, there was such an unusual scent-- fruity, earthy.

I haven't yet purchased a proper gaiwan and associated hardware, nor have I been trained in their use by a Chinese tea master. But I try to approximate the process I read about by using porcelain covered cups and careful attention to temperature and timing. Following Hao De's advice, I filled a cup 1/4 full of the balled oolong leaves. I did a number of short steeps, and I slowly increased the length of the steepings until the tea stopped being pleasurable. The notes below, I took as I tasted. I'll leave them as is, only editing the most egregious errors.

steeping 1: 30s
not very flavorful tea liquor yet
the scent of the leaves is outstanding, so unusual

Because the tea hadn't taken on the flavor yet, but the leaves were so brightly scented, I held up my steeping cup near my nose while I drank, sort of borrowing the aroma to flavor the tea. Very harmonious, though probably not something I'd do when people are watching. I couldn't keep my nose out of the steeping cup, away from that aroma.

steeping 2: 20s
totally unique flavor. now the tea begins to taste like the scent of those leaves.

steeping 3: 20s
Noticeably stronger flavor!
what is this aroma/flavor combination?! almost a mint/pine brightness, slightly dry in the mouth, like rich fruit and and perhaps a bit floral, but like no flower I'm familiar with.
just a hint of bitterness now developing
bright, amazing savor

steeping 4: 20s
best steeping yet. glorious. my wife and I are sharing the tea between us, and i am having a hard time believing how good this is. or keeping up with her demand for tea.

steeping 5: 35s
flavor maintaining its profile very nicely

steeping 6: 45s
I am enjoying just sipping, not writing. This is definitely a tea to be savored, and probably writing this post is taking away from that. The next time I make this, I will write nothing and taste everything.

steeping 7: 60s + 5m
60s is not enough, the taste is too weak. I will now follow another tea master's advice and start using longer steeping times. Don't be horrified! I poured the water back on the leaves and steeped this time for 5 minutes. drinking alone now, and wanted to get the most out of the tea.
at 6m, the tea tastes great again, though the mouthfeel is getting much weaker.

steeping 8: 15m
Just too weak to be enjoyed anymore. Faint hint of flavor, but not enough to compel me to fill up on more liquid.

As I walk around after the tasting, the complex, lingering aftertaste follows me around the house, clearly and distinctly, and much longer than I expected.

Awesome tea, and one of the best experiences I've had yet with oolongs. I am very anxious to get back to this tea and just drink-- no typing-- with my eyes closed and some music playing. Thank you, Kyle at Fang Tea, for the gift of such excellent LiSan Oolong. I'm a convert, and I will obviously have to search out more of the tea from Pear Mountain.


Unknown said...

As I read your blog, I am getting more and more excited to attend Fang's Tea Tasting Festa June 11-13! I have fallen in love with Oolong, and I know they will have quite a selection! My mouth is watering after reading your review... and I am quite jealous as I sip my Oolong, Dragonwell, Silver Needle, Jasmine Pearl mix! I think I will go make me a cuppa Six Summits Oolong, just to get a sliver of the experience you had!

Unknown said...

Terri Lynn: Welcome, and thank you for joining me on the blog!

I'm sure the Fang tasting will be quite exciting, and I wish I could be there. But being a Chicagoan, not likely for me to be in New York anytime soon.

Enjoy your Six Summits.

I am wondering about your mix of Oolong, Dragonwell, Silver Needle, Jasmine Pearls. What taste are you trying to accomplish? Or do you have a mad scientist's flair for invention?

金頭腦兒童潛能開發中心 said...

I really enjoy your article, it is nice to reading. and that Tea sounds great, too.

Unknown said...

I was recommended to try the Dragonwell with Six Summits (I usually add Silver Needle to most mixes I make-- gives a nice antioxidant & fat-fighting boost)... the jasmine is just a few pearls and 1/4 scoop of jasmine oolong for the relaxation benefit!-- I definitely won't be mixing Fang's Oolong with ANYTHING ELSE! --and yes, I am a little bit of a mad scientist when it comes to my tea blends! I will have to send some to you to try (with or without the jasmine!)... that and my gingseng vitality blend! It is great iced... has 5 different teavana teas mixed together! (usually I am going for a great taste and a powerful cuppa all in one!)