Monday, May 25, 2009

REVIEW: Xiao Tuo Cha, Red Leaf Tea

Today I type with cuts on my index finger and thumb on the left hand, which makes the letters t, f, g, r, b, and v rather difficult to achieve. I was opening a container of tortellacci, which are indistinguishable from tortellini except for the presence of an -acci at the end, and I cut myself. Being thus disabled, and dealing with the grotty remnants of a Nyquil hangover, and a fussy but temporarily sleeping baby nearby, I naturally thought to do something complex. So, pu-erh! I think I will review both the tea and its effectiveness in driving away the grunged-up feeling in my skull this morning. And if an occasional g is dropped, please have mercy on my cut finger.

Xiao Tuo Cha, Red Leaf Tea

This is what you'll find on the Red Leaf Tea Web site:


Xiao Tuo Cha Pu-erh tea provides a novel drinking experience by way of the tea leaves which are compressed into "bird's nests" and subjected to an aging process that imparts it with a distinctive earthy flavor. Known to many for its reputed weight reduction properties, Xiao Tuo Cha Pu-Erh comes individually wrapped and are ideal for families or single large servings. This tea is oxidized slowly, which explains its richer, deeper, flavor, qualities which only seem to get better and more intense with age!

The pu-erh is compressed into a tiny bird's nest shape (which is the meaning of the term, tuo cha), of very tiny leaves. Typically, tuo cha are not made of the highest-grade pu-erh leaves, so I chose to do two washes of 20s each to help clear the cobwebs, so to speak. As I rinsed, I noticed that quite a lot of tiny leaf matter made it past the built-in strainer on Great-Grandma's porcelain Japanese pot, into the secondary strainer below. Not quite dust or fannings, perhaps, but very tiny.

Because I don't have all sorts of Chinese gaiwan or Yixing pots, I make do with what I have, trying to achieve the wabi-sabi relaxed preparation style anyway. I am doing a number of steepings, about 10-20s each, with two 20s rinses to start.

The first steeping produces an opaque black brew, with a nice burn to the back of the throat, and a high note of berry, which is riding over the top of the rather smooth woodiness. Grottiness in my head is beginning to abate, slightly, and I don't feel as though I'm typing in such a fog. The letter g is still not wanting to appear when I type it, and I need to keep repeating every time I hit that letter.

Second steeping was accompanied by baby waking up and fussing. Makes a proper pu tasting a bit questionable. But what is wabi-sabi about, but an embrace of the perfections hidden within the imperfections? I'm happy the baby is up, though my attention may now wander a bit from its intense (though bleary) focus on the pu. The liquor is a bit more transparent, just a bit. The wet leaves are waking up to a mild spiciness. Taste is not very strong, but it does have a bit of bitterness that is off-putting to my wife, who thought it could use a bit of sugar to smooth the rough edges.

This steeping is significantly more transparent than before, and the bottom of the cup can now be discerned. Thus far, I've not been too excited by the flavor of this pu, but I'm willing to keep steeping to see where this goes. Starting to wake up, and was sufficiently alert to discuss the idea of Qi, and whether there's anything to it. This steeping is quite a bit smoother than previous, as well, with a hint of sweetness and a faint burn in the throat. Liquor at the bottom of the white cup now displays a nice reddish-brown. Some small amount of leaf dust has made it past two filters into my cup.

Nicely transparent cup. Sufficiently awake to make breakfast. Is it the caffeine, or is it the Qi? Either way, being awake is no longer a bother. The flavor of this pu is slightly woody, and the bitterness has gone out of the cup. There is a blueberry or such astringent berry flavor hiding up inside the rafters, peeking out. Now I understand why reviewers of pu-erhs have such an odd assortment of steeping lengths: Basically, counting to 15 or 20 in your head combine with little life moments that mean that getting a tea to pour at a precise moment is not terribly likely, and it's a bit of a pain to achieve anyway. So why bother? If a pu-erh flight is a chore because it's impossible to maintain precision, then I'm probably missing the point entirely.

Transparent, amber-brown cup. Awake enough to now remember that I have a seven-year-old boy, as well as the baby mentioned earlier. He's making a fort in the living room and is starting to require attention, too. The leaves in the pot are mildly fragrant, slightly spicy, but difficult to discern specific nose-references. (To hyphenate or not to hypenate? That-is-the-question.) The subtle flavors are starting to announce themselves, though they are quite restrained. I'll stop here, because I don't want to keep drinking it as it becomes even weaker.

I'm glad the caffeine or Qi have been sufficient in this cup of pu-erh to wake me up and let me feel refreshed enough to get started on the day. To be truthful, I'm glad this was not my first foray into pu, because I would have thought, "Meh. What's all the fuss about?" Though I was not the best test subject, what with noisy children, and demands of the day, and feeling as grotty as hell (there's that word again!) this morning, these tea leaves still seemed not to be very excited about going into the cup. My wife found it bitter and unexciting; I found it rather weak, insufficiently nuanced, and unexciting.

That being said: at about $2.50 per tuo cha, multiplied by 5 steepings with 2 teacups' worth of tea per steeping, we come to about a quarter per cup. Talking to a Chinese friend the other day, I was reminded that the Chinese-- inventors of the wonderful tea innovations-- don't always sit around drinking only the most ethereal of brews, which I as a Westerner dare not even contemplate. So it's certainly okay to drink a utilitarian cup of tea, and it doesn't always have to be a near-religious experience.

But I want to drink pu-erh not merely to wake up, but also to expand my tea-drinking horizons and excite my palate.

Note: no finger puppets were harmed in the making of this review.