To my taste, the first sip of a white tea is almost not worth drinking, so insipid do I find it to be. With Canton Tea Company's Yin Zhen (Silver Needle), I find that to be almost, but not quite, true. That was a compliment, by the way, in case you're keeping score.
I am always fascinated by how leaf juice from this plant can be so mercurial. It will change from steeping to steeping, from setting to setting, and the variation is endless. In fact, it's almost impossible for me to get the same exact results twice (though I don't try to do so very often, because variety is the spice of life). The literal translation for gongfu is, "skillful preparation." Knowing just how long to steep a particular type of tea, and at what temperature, and in what fashion, shows how deeply your knowledge of tea goes. In my case, I coined the term, gong-faux, to signify that much of my tea drinking is a clumsy combination of research, obsessive patience, and all-too-often failed experiments as I grope toward a decent cup.
Today's example from The 39 Steeps Tea Laboratory:
Read online that this particular Yin Zhen, distributed by Canton Tea Company, is best served in perhaps three steeps in a gongfu session. Think to self, "The amount of tea they recommend seems too small for gongfu. Like I know. Anyway, double it." Steep the white tea for 2 or 3 minutes at 75C, and sip when hot (or, hottish), and get... almost nothing. Pour out into the tiny gongfu cup, and sip again. Strong! Almost bitter. Maybe too much leaf for this gongfu preparation? Stupid to go off the reservation! Perhaps a white tea prepared gongfu only requires a tablespoon, rather than two, of the tea. Perhaps I should have compensated for more leaf by steeping less time, instead of (finally) following directions? Sip again... and ready for the second steeping. Go off recipe, and this time steep only half the time. Better, but still a bit bitter. This shouldn't be bitter. Am I mad to mess this up like this? Bleh. Toss the whole thing and try again. Note to self: following only half of the directions will ensure a lousy result, as anyone reading this could easily have predicted.
Well, let's reread Canton Tea Company's Web site to see how to prepare this stuff:
Origin : Fuding County, Fujian Province
Harvest : Spring 2009
Varietal : Fuding Da Bai Hao
Certification : Organic certification in China. Direct from the farmer.
This rare and delicious Silver Needle white tea is entirely hand-made from Fuding Da Bai Hao tips and is simply picked at dawn and scattered in the sun to dry. It is a very high quality Yin Zhen showing a dense covering of the characteristic white hairs on a healthy, plump, pale green leaf. The liquor is very pale and bright - the colour of champagne and it has a sweet nutty aroma. It tastes soft, creamy and mellow with a long and pleasant aftertaste.
Brewing tips: Silver needle should be brewed quite cool, around 75c, allowed to steep for 2 to 3 minutes and infused at least 3 times
NB These fine, high grade, whole leaf teas yield different flavours with each successive infusion. The second is usually considered the best. This is why the best way to brew the tea is in a small pot and to make several quick infusions.
Buyers Notes “Try nibbling on a bud of this top Silver Needle after infusion: it will be sweet and delicious, unlike lower grades which can be bitter and woody. This tea comes from Fuding, Fujian province. The farmer won the gold medal for Yin Zhen at this year’s international tea competition in Las Vegas.”
Nibbling, check. (Tastes a bit bitter, honestly, and kind of furry.) The appearance is exactly as described: small buds, olive green with a dusting of silver hairs overall. Dusty smell to the dry leaves that tickles the nose and reminds me of a hot summer meadow. The Web site provides no notes on how much leaf to use, but I can only assume the amount I used earlier was too much, so I am going to use about a tablespoon, give or take (now there's scientific accuracy for ya). I'll go with 2:30 to get the middle setting, and use that throughout the three steepings. I am unfamiliar with treating whit tea in gongfu fashion, so we'll see what we come up with this time.
SECOND TIME AROUND
1st steeping: 2.5 minutes, 75C, 1tbsp/cup
Pretty weak, not terribly gripping, though not at all bitter. The sweetness and drying make me experience this primarily in the feeling, but not the taste, of the tea. As usual, I think my barbarian tastebuds are not sufficiently attuned to properly enjoy this white tea. Incidentally, my seven-year-old boy enjoyed using the new wenxianbei immensely, and reported the smell of the dry leaves was, "weird."
2nd steeping: (same)
The tea has the slightest of flavors-- buttery is right, per the Canton Tea Company description of the texture. The tea, to me, seems apprehended primarily in the retronasal aftertaste that rises in the throat; a bit like water chestnut or brazil nuts, or perhaps white bread very lightly toasted.
3rd steeping: (same)
There is simply not enough coming from this cup of tea for my taste. Too subtle by half.
I'm beginning to feel like Goldilocks: first time, too strong. Second time, too weak. Third time, just right?
AND THIRD TIME AROUND (good grief)
1st infusion: 2 minutes, 70C, precisely 1.4682 tablespoons per cup. Give or take.
The tea is quite strong, buttery, and a pale green-gold. Happily, I used a strainer, because there was quite a bit of broken leaf that made it past my gaiwan lid.
2nd Infusion: 2 minutes, 70C
There's a floral quality that reminds me strongly of a light jasmine tea. I'm not truly crazy about jasmine tea, as a rule, but this is interesting, not cloying.
3rd Infusion: 2 minutes, 70C
In spite of the description of the Web site, I enjoy the third steeping the most. Palest gold in color, and quite subtle in flavor.
Well, for all the hullabaloo of finding the right volume of tea per cup, and settling on a good formula, I end up thinking, as usual, "This tea, though rather interesting, is not what I'm looking for." Just too subtle for me. I like my enigmas wrapped in bright, shiny wrapping paper with a bow, thank you.
Great Frankenstein's laboratory image is by artist Steven Martiniere, found via the Frankensteinia blog.