Friday, June 26, 2009

REVIEW: Jing Tea, Pre-rain Organic Anji Bai Cha

Emperor Song Hui Zhong was quite the artist, no?
Too bad he had no idea how to run an empire.



Jing Tea's Pre-rain Organic Anji Bai Cha

A BIT OF HISTORY: A LOST TEA IS FOUND AFTER A THOUSAND YEARS. MAYBE.

I was researching Anji Bai Cha and found this wonderful history. Regrettably, Friend Ningbo's Web site, China Travel, is no longer active. I'll publish the entire blog post here, just in case China Travel disappears. [boldface mine]

Harvested between 7 to 18 degrees Celsius on March 28, 2006 before Qing Ming! There was an emperor during the Song Dynasty named Song Hui Zhong (Zhou Ji) who was a great artist, and a passionate tea lover. He wrote a book about tea titled ‘Da Guan Cha Lun’ (A Discussion Focused on Tea) He wrote a whole chapter on Bai Cha, but he didn’t mention the source.

Lu Yu, the famous tea sage during the Tang Dynasty, described An Ji as a treasure of tea, but he didn’t mention the tea. It took 900 years for tea scholars and tea masters to put the two together and discover an ancient Bai Cha bush. It has taken since 1980 to propagate enough bushes to have a commercial crop. This is the most sought after green tea in China. It is rare and wonderful. We are proud to be the first company to import this tea from China. Bai Cha means white tea, but this is green tea, and despite the name it does not belong to the white tea category. The name comes from Zhou Ji, which likened it to white jade in water. This tea is sometimes called by tea experts An Ji Bai Pian. The soil where this tea grows is similar to the soil in the WuYi Mountains in that it is sandy, rocky and rich in minerals. The environment, of course, has a powerful impact on the tea. In the winter there is a stretch of cold for more than 20 days of -8 to - 10 degrees Celsius. This causes a decrease in chlorophyll. As the weather warms and the new tea buds and leaves start to grow, the color is a very light and yellowish shade of green, the veins being dark green. After the temperature reaches 23 degrees Celsius the leaves turn to a darker shade of green.

The tea harvest time for the best tea occurs for the short amount of time before the leaves turn color. During this period the amino acid theranine is double that of other teas. Theranine is an amino acid that is calming to the nervous system. The fragrance of this tea shouts FRESH, and the taste is very clean and sweet. There is a very limited amount of this tea.

This is why I like to read about the story of tea. Here we have a unique bai cha that was mentioned in a text written by the brilliant and tragic Emperor Hui Zhong, of the Song Dynasy, who lived from 1082 to 1135. Even earlier, the great Sage of Tea, Yu Lu (733-804) wrote his classic, The Classic of Tea (Chá jīng). In his book, Yu Lu mentions this unusual tea, as well. Well, some researchers put two and two together, and a great tea is reintroduced to the world after a hiatus of perhaps a thousand years. Or so it appears.

Further, I found this comment on the T Ching Web site, written by Austin Hodge, founder of Seven Cups (an excellent source for serious tea lovers):

...There has been a lot of confusion about ‘white tea’ and its origin. In the west, the confusion began with John Blofeld’s book The Chinese Art of Tea. Blofeld, who had never come across a white tea, said that it was rare and highly prized and had been more common during the Song Dynasty. He thought that there may have been some at the time in Fujian, but he had not tasted any. The Song reference is from the Da Guan Cha Lun, written by the Song emperor Song Hui Zhong Zao Jie. He loved what he named “Bai Cha,” which means white tea, but was really green tea, which was the only kind of tea that was produced at that time. He named it not for the characteristics of the leaf, but because the tea liquid was the color of white jade, a very light shade of green. This tea was rare at the time, and he made no reference the the area where it had been produced, though tea scholars feel that it had come from Anji in Northern Zhejiang province. During the time that Blofeld was writing his book a Bai Cha bush was discovered by researchers there in the 1980s. From that single bush the current crop of Anji Bai Cha has been propagated. It is important perhaps to note that all tea produced during the Song Dynasty was made into cakes, which were then ground into powder and then whipped tea with a whisk in the same way as matcha is prepared today. It is possible that the ancestor of the Da Bai Hao bush, Lu Xue Cha, was being consumed during the Song, it is unlikely that it is the ‘Bai Cha’ mentioned by Song Hui Zhong Zao Jie. At least Chinese scholars don’t think it to be likely, because it is supposed the tea produced would be a very rich green color. Fujian tea marketing would like to make the connection, but tea scholars disagree.

The origins of white tea production are not very old. Not until somewhere between 1772 and 1782 was white tea first produced. The process was developed by the Xiao family in Jiang Yang County in northern Fujian and the technique quickly spread to Fuding, Zheng He and Song Xi. The Xiao family wanted to establish a tea making process that would be more economical. They eliminated pan frying and shaping and minimized roasting. Still, not until the early nineteenth century did the evolution of the Da Bai Hao bush produce enough buds to make Bai Hao Yin Shen (Silver Needle) as its own distinct tea.

There is no steaming involved in the production of white tea, no in Chinese green teas in general. Unlike green tea production which is exposed to relatively high temperatures to remove moisture, white tea is dried naturally using sunlight or lower temperatures in doors helping to preserve tea polyphenols. The preferred method is drying by the sun, up to 90% if there is sunny weather. It is not often, however, that there is enough sunshine to provide this function. The alternative process begins with the tea after being withered in covered open sheds, then is placed on bamboo ranks inside of rooms that are radiator heated at about 40 C. It is important to note the care that Bai Hao Yin Shen is given when laying the buds on the racks, as if they were solders in formation, neatly lined, spaced and in formation. The room is well ventilated to remove the humidity with fans. During this natural drying white tea will naturally oxidize very slightly. Masters skill is shown in temperature control though the drying process, consideration for ambient temperatures during the all natural process and how thick the leaves are piled on to the bamboo drying trays. The tea is dried in this way to 70%. The final stage in either case is a slight roasting, in the past done by charcoal, is now heated artificially. Great care is used in protecting the color of the hair or fuzz so that it does not yellow.

Mr Pratt is also mistaken [in an earlier post, which is being discussed here] in saying that Bai Hao Yin Shen does not contain caffeine or chlorophyll and like all bud tea is very rich in tea polyphenols. The research of Lou Shou Jun, director of the Chinese National Tea Quality Control Center indicates that the bud of the Da Bai Hao bush is one of the richest in tea polyphenols of the Chinese varietals. In does in fact contain caffeine and chlorophyll, this were early myths about Bai Hao Yin Shen to explain the name, but have no basis in fact. The Bai Hao Yin Shen looks just as green on the bush as any other bud.

The other myth is that white tea is a rare tea. Actually the Da Bai Hao bush has been widely propagated through the support of the Chinese government. It is a major export crop. In the domestic market, because it buds early in the spring there by bringing a better price, and is made into green tea. You can find vast Da Bai Hao gardens as far north as the Ningbo area in Zhejiang province producing green tea. Ironically the once truely rare Bai Cha bush from Anji is also spreading quickly through the tea growing areas of Zhejiang and Anhui.

Still, it is all great tea.

Austin


Controversy!
Yes, that's why I love to read about tea. It may or may not be the long-lost tea, but it does taste, oh, so good.


THE TEA
In appearance, the leaves are long, emerald-green spears. They are obviously pan fried, in the classic one-leaf-and-a-bud configuration. I was impressed at their perfect appearance, with such nicely green, crisp leaves. Obviously, this tea has been well cared for, because the leaves would appear washed-out and less brilliant were they not stored properly. This tea smells a lot like the Dragon Well teas I've drunk, perhaps because of the pan frying.

THE PREPARATION
1 tbsp per cup of filtered water, boiled then brought down to 65C, steeped 4 minutes in Great-Grandma's Japanese porcelain teapot.

THE CUP
The liquor is a pale, crystal gold. Happily, this Anji Bai Cha is quite smooth, not at all bitter. The Jing Tea Web site says it is "vivacious and exuberant;" I would have to agree, with this caveat: The tea didn't open up its flavors for me until the second cup of the first steeping, after the tea had an opportunity to oxidize a bit and develop its complexity.

My wife saw the dry leaves, and they were so delicious looking, she tasted some and convinced me to do likewise. The leaves were just a touch bitter when chewing, but they left such a refreshing, clear, bright aftertaste. I can see how people can make tea leaves into meals in some Chinese restaurants. Perhaps this green tea could be marketed as a candy by some clever teapreneur. Any takers?

This green tea-- it's not really white, but green, in spite of its name-- has such an airy mouthfeel and flavor with the first cup. Now, for the second cup, the tastes have opened up. Again, the "Second Cup" phenomenon shows itself, whereby heat and time combine to allow the complex flavinoids, and catechins, and so on in the tea to combine and recombine, forming new substances that were not there early on.

THE SECOND STEEPING
The mouthfeel is rather dry now, and so clean tasting-- like it is sanitizing my mouth. The flavor is now reminiscent of vanilla, pine, and iris-- a green Spring in a cup.

OVERALL IMPRESSIONS
At first, the tea was just too quiet for me, and then on the second cup, bang, the flavors showed up. The tea liquor itself shared quite exactly the taste that I had experienced by nibbling on the tea leaves. There's that umami, the Fifth Flavor; and a pine-like grassiness, combined with very high, singing notes like lavender, or iris, or a grape arbor. The tea finishes with a very sweet huigan, which is complex and surprising.

This is a really satisfying cup of tea.


UPDATE: This tea review can also be found on TeaViews.com: http://www.teaviews.com/2009/06/27/review-jing-tea-pre-rain-organic-anji-bai-cha/

1 comments:

Nerval said...

Steven, you bring up a very interesting point.
"The tea had an opportunity to oxidize a bit and develop its complexity."
Just like letting your wine breathe and aerate in the glass after pouring, the evolution of tea in the cup is an important aspect! Even the colour can change quite a bit, not only in green teas, but also in puer.
Yet it's an issue so often forgotten. Often we pour tea into small cups and the brew is gone in a few seconds.
Keep up the good work on the blog!