Monday, May 18, 2009

Review: Zhi Tea, Royal Gold

Reviewing: Zhi Tea Royal Gold

Zhi Tea's Royal gold is familiar, it's friendly, and it's got complexity and intensity enough to make me happy while not needing to be explained to people who don't drink tea every day.

My life has changed a lot since I started writing about teas. For starters, I now have a healthy and happy baby girl of three months. And because I work at home, my tea times have become much more often packaged between bouts of work and diapers and carrying Charis in the football hold that leaves me entirely unable to type, but very able to read with the occasional mouse click. I've had the pleasure of reading many other tea bloggers, who write passionately and enjoyably about this obsession of mine. I find that some of the best tea bloggers, aside from their obvious breadth of knowledge and charming insight, also seem relaxed, and they are not trying to impress the reader. Humility seems to go with the territory, and I will try to emulate that here.

Yunnan is the heart of tea, and where it seems to have originated. The Web site reads:

Our organic Royal Gold from Yunnan Province is the queen of China Black tea! This top-most grade is comprised entirely of gold-tipped new-growth spring buds that produce a gorgeous dark gold liquor infusion. After harvesting, the buds are painstakingly hand-sorted, resulting in an exceptionally high-grade tea. When oxidized, these gorgeous buds turn gold rather than black and when steeped, release a rich, smooth flavor with lingering notes of honey, roasted almond, and bing cherry. The flavor will evolve through subsequent infusions (yes!). A royal treat.
I would like to know more from the Zhi Web site: Where in Yunnan is this tea created? What is it like there? How does the terroir affect the flavor of this specific tea? How is this specific vintage distinct from other Yunnan teas out there?

Zhi Tea offers their Royal Gold, which is a Yunnan black tea. The dry tea is made up lovely twists of brown-and-gold tippy leaves, which give off a tiny bit of yellow tea powder from the travel. The leaves are nice and crunchy when I crumble them in my fingers, which means this batch has been kept safe from its archenemy, moisture. Bodes well for a good pot of tea. The tea leaves have a rather dusty smell, like chocolate powder, perhaps. The scent makes me think the subsequent brew will be malty and thick... ah, but not so fast!

Using Great-Grandma's Japanese porcelain teapot, my lovely wife prepared 3 cups barely boiling water with 3 generous tsps of the tea. Generous, because the tea leaves are pretty large and are therefore not too dense in the teaspoon. We steeped the tea for about 3.5 minutes before pouring off.

This is a very fragrant tea. The leaves have a rather spicy, dark, heavy scent, and they unfurl to large, chocolate-brown leaves that remain furled fairly tightly.

...And the cup belies the scent almost entirely. I was expecting heavy, thick, mouthfeel. Some people like this, but I don't particularly. However: I found the tea's flavor and aroma to be very clean and bright, with pungent berry notes and the kind of mouthfeel I would typically expect in perhaps a green or first-flush Darjeeling-- not at all heavy or malty. There is a very bright berry flavor (the Web site suggests bing cherries, and I am certainly willing to accept that), and the finish is quite subtle but lasting. One point of contention: The tea is not at all golden in color, but rather a dark brown, not truly transparent to the bottom of the cup. I did follow the instructions of the Web site, so I am not sure how their in-house preparation differed from mine so much that they arrived at such a result.

Interestingly, as the tea cools, the flavor dulls considerably. The higher, intense berry notes are gone; and the body note, the heavier chocolate-spice, has gone missing. For my taste, this tea seems to have a very quick life in the cup, and it benefits from being drunk quite hot, just as it leaves the pot. The second cup did not fare very well, and seemed much less interesting than the first cup. This is in opposition to many teas I have enjoyed, particularly from Darjeeling, in which that second cup is where the real business is.

The Half-Dipper Web site includes a nice discussion of the way aromas in tea behave, in this post. Here is a short excerpt from a thoughtful blog post, "Tasting Tea."

When you pour the soup out of the wenxiangbei [aroma cup], you get what perfumers (and modern day biochemists) traditionally term the "top note" or "head note". It's all of the "light" volatile compounds that make it into the nose first - you get lighter, higher notes such as sweetness, floral compounds, etc. Teafolk might call this the beidixiang (BAY DEE SHEE-ANG), lit. cup-bottom scent. Do you get mushrooms? Flowers? Sweetness? If so, what sort of sweetness?

As these disappear, and the "heavier" volatile compounds take over, you get the "bass note" or "body note". Perfumers liken their craft to music, and it's easy to see why. As an engineer, I think in terms of low-frequency spectral content and high-frequency spectral content - it's exactly the same as the audio analogy. (Engineers are great to take to concerti - "oh, listen to the high-frequency components in that section!") This heavier stage consists of deep sugars, richness, lowness, bass notes, that kind of thing. Teafolk might call this the lengxiang (LUNG SHEE-ANG), lit. cool-scent. Molasses? Brown sugar? What do you get at this point?

Sensing of these compounds gives you an indication of the content in various stages of the tea. Often, the aroma correlates with observations made using the mouth, throat, and aftertaste. It can another way to determine what compounds are tucked away inside your tea.
Do please read the article to enrich your own enjoyment of really tasting your tea.

At any rate, this is the type of tea that benefits from paying it close attention, because it has a lot to offer. Some of the teas I most enjoy seem made for very private enjoyment, but this one is something I would easily see serving at a gathering of friends who don't usually drink tea (like most of my friends), but enjoy having their palates expanded. Zhi Tea's Royal gold is familiar, it's friendly, and it's got complexity and intensity enough to make me happy while not needing to be explained to people who don't drink tea every day.