Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Review Series Pu-erh 4: "Delta" by Yunnan Sourcing

Today I am tasting Δ (Delta), the fourth of five in Hobbes's pu-erh tasting series. As with the rest of the series, I am imitating the video I found on the Wrong Fu Cha Web site, in which a bowl is filled with hot water, and the teapot is brewed inside it, helping maintain high temperature throughout the steeping process. I don't do this because I am definitively saying this is the best way to do gongfu, but rather because I found the video to be engaging and fun-looking, so off I went. The results have been enjoyable, and I hope for the best. I'm writing this instead of sleeping, using tea to get me through a very long night of work. Sometimes, it's better to power through than to sleep. I hope this is one of those times.

And my standard disclaimer: I am not a pu-erh aficionado, and so if you're here expecting an expert's eye overlooking the leaf, wringing from it the secrets of its making, you're in the wrong place. However, if you're new to this type of tea, as I am, perhaps this will convince you to search out some pu-erh of your own and give it a whirl.

I drank this tea over the course of two days, with something like a dozen or so short steeps, ranging from about 10s to up to several minutes. The tea provided me with plenty of energy to get through a particularly difficult set of deadlines I faced. The pu-erh itself had a pleasant tobacco shop aroma, with a flavor that changed over time: starting a touch bitter, moving into a sweetly burnt-caramel sensation, and with quite a bit of complexity. If you have not tried pu-erh, or the Chinese way of making deconstructing a pot of tea by breaking it down into many short steeps, I would encourage you to try. For coffee drinkers, I would think pu-erh would provide you with something you could get your tastebuds around, so to speak: lots of solidity and "oomph," and with quite a bit of buoyancy in mood.

Hic Sunt Dracones

What follows are my detailed tasting notes, which you don't need to read unless you have quite the attention span. I am learning as I go, and this helps me track my experience for future buying decisions (and for general knowledge). Beyond Here Be Dragons and Unduly Long Descriptions of Brown Leaf Juice.

Rinse: 10s
Quick rinse of my new zisha pot, which I picked up during Bret's sale on his Web site, Tea Goober. Bret, thank you for the lovely pot. After the rinse, the leaves take on a rich, darkly tobacco scent, which promises much loveliness.

Steeping 1: 10s
A touch bitter the first cup, so probably a 5s steeping would have served me better for this first steeping. HOWEVER, the second cup of the first steeping (even at this early stage) starts to show me the waking complexity of this cup. Michael Coffey would rebuke me for trying to put this into words, but I want to convey how interesting this pu is to me: it's got a brilliant flavor, but there are so many layers of flavor that reward me when I close my eyes to sip.

The aroma reminds me of the Iwan Ries tobacco my Grandpa Allison used to smoke in his home in Effingham, Illinois. When I'd visit, his immaculate house always carried this sweet-tobacco scent, which I associate with his pipe collection. He never smoked around me (on account of the asthma I suffered under as a kid), but the sweetness of this leaf became one of my Favorite Things. I'd sniff around his pipes and the pouches of leaf he would have on his pipe stand, the wood of which was redolent of tobacco in and of itself. Please don't ask me which specific Iwan Ries tobacco he would smoke, because my memory doesn't carry so far. Strange, how drinking Chinese tea can make me miss my Grandfather.

While I was writing the above, I was struck by the huigan, which is the Chinese term for the sweet aftertaste that rises up in the throat, retronasally. In this case, it's light and compelling, very enjoyable.

Steeping 2: 12s
In spite of my desire to pop that tea out quickly, I just couldn't move enough. All the descriptions of gongfu cha on the Web sites fail to mention how hot everything is, and how fragile. Tea pot burning fingers! Do not drop tea pot, which you just bought. Pour out gently, even while fingers are uncomfortably hot. Suddenly, 5 seconds becomes 12. Chinese people must have fingers made of titanium, to be able to withstand all this hot water. The aroma rising from my wenxianbei (aroma cup) is like caramel, or burnt sugar, and sweet cotton candy. Which are all kind of the same thing, I realize. There's a rich mouthfeel that accompanies that bitterness-- which, naturally, would have been avoided with a slightly shorter steep. So sue me. Happily, I don't mind a touch of bitterness in my tea, though I know it's not truly optimal. As before, the second cup (and subsequent) are not nearly as bitter as at first, so either I'm acclimating to the bitterness, or there's some process in the fairness cup that is mellowing the flavor. My enjoyment rests primarily in the aftertaste, which is complex and lovely, and keeps opening up as the seconds tick.

Steeping 3: 12s
I just cannot pour fast enough, and 12 seconds seems to be about the amount of time it takes me to get the hot kettle back to the stove and then be able to pour off the tea. I do not have a tableside electric kettle, nor a charcoal brazier of the type favored by Imen Shan at Tea Habitat. Nevertheless, I soldier on.
Here, the tea is taking on a much richer aspect in both mouthfeel and distinctiveness of flavor. I wish someone were here to taste this with me, but it's midnight, and I'm trying to energize to work through until morning. There's tobacco, and a tingly mouthfeel I associate with some type of menthol. The orange liquor has remained quite constant. There's a drying aspect to the mouthfeel that has me wishing for a tall glass of ice water.

Steeping 4: 10s
Ah, I'm in the zone, getting in a shorter steep, at last. I begin to understand the wisdom of this type of steeping method. By keeping the pot submerged in quite hot water, it allows the leaves to stay at a nicely warm temperature, no matter how long (within reason) I take between steeps. It probably wouldn't matter as much if I were in of a larger party, were the tea flowed more quickly. But by myself, I think it helps.
At this point, there is a richer sweetness developing, which I find surprising. I've gotten used to the flavor, but now as the bitterness recedes, these other flavors appear. Seriously, lovely, and the best steeping yet. Tobacco is less pronounced, and other complexities rise up.

Steeping 5: 10s
Sigh. I need to get to work, as midnight has arrived. While I waited for the water to heat this last time, I read through accounts of sea serpents (click the map picture above), with lots of amusing and fascinating images of sea monsters, as drawn by cartographers and artists a couple centuries past.
And what does that have to do with tea? Well, tea has water in it. And tea came by ships. And... well, nothing, really. Anyway, the pu-erh: The tobacco flavor has taken on a sharper aspect now, with a smokier character, yet with notes of fruit, like apple or melon, floating on top of the heavier aroma. Very lovely.

I'll continue this journal as I go, in between bouts of work, which I expect to be doing throughout the night. I hope the Qi, or the caffeine+theanine, will help me stay alert and focused.

Steeping 6: 15s
Still going strong, with a beautiful aroma that drifts from the fairness pitcher as I work. A slightly sour honey flavor, with a kind of hay overtone is evident. Really nice.

Steepings 7 through 12 (or so): various lengths
I really rather do like this pu-erh, so I kept it going on into the next day. Perhaps at its 12th steeping or so, I moved on. The tea provided me with the energy to get through the deadlines I needed to finish, and then some. The pu's flavor and aroma remained pretty steady, without much variation after about the 7th steeping.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Review Series Pu-erh 3: "Gamma" by Yunnan Sourcing

And this our life,
exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees,
books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones,
and good in every thing.

Drinking tea often sets me to musing. In my last pu-erh tasting, I made reference to the sophistication of this pastime, and how oh-so-nuanced it all was. But here, I think almost the exact opposite: that I'm experiencing something primal, something ancient, perfectly tuned to nature and her wildly exuberant fancies.

With this tasting, I have been enjoying thoroughly pu-erh of a quality that I had not experienced before.

For the gamma bing, I followed roughly the same method of tea preparation as with the previous: I kept a large bowl of very hot water, in which I mostly submerged my teapot and prepared my tea with a fairly large amount of leaf and many short steeps.

Once I rinsed the leaves, they took on a pungent, complex, almost chocolate aroma, which I found intoxicating. I had hoped the aroma would carry into the cup, but alas, they diverged.

At the very first, the tea leaves seemed hesitant-- or, perhaps I should say, I was unable to bring out a very strong flavor. But then . . . well, I'll let you read my notes.

Steeping 2: 12s
Amen, hallelujah. The second steeping smells like Pau D'arco, and like the Forest of Arden. The first sip of the cup was truly weak; but then after it rested a few moments in the fairness pitcher and was poured, the flavor awoke: sharp, rich mouthfeel, indescribably complex. Still a bit on the light side.

From there, the tea progressed through an entirely pleasant session, with a beautifully woodsy and airy cup. Throughout the experience, the tea remained fairly on the light side, which I found surprising-- remember, my previous experience with pu-erh had been with shupu tuochas, which were pretty intense and rather heavy by comparison. This was almost wispy, with this woodsiness (that Forest of Arden aroma) that I described earlier.

Thank you again, Hobbes, for a lovely tasting event. I'm trying to keep up! But, alas, a too-busy schedule put me behind. I'll be adding my tasting notes for the last couple samples in the next couple days.

Here are Hobbes's introductory remarks about the identity of this mystery pu-erh, which is 2009 Yunzhiyuan/Ruicaoxiang "Bulangshanyun." Please read the rest, and enjoy!
"Gamma" is the "Bulangshanyun", which by coincidence or design is the same name as the dreadful "Bulangshanyun" from Puerh Shop that I lamented a few days ago. Yunnan Sourcing notes that this cake was made from 2006 maocha from Mannonzhai [winding-lane village], near Hekai, some 20km north of Banzhang.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Review Series Pu-erh 2: "Beta" by Yunnan Sourcing

"Fear is the only darkness."

The beauty of gongfu is the opportunity to drink tea as you read a book: in progressive chapters with a beginning, a middle, and an end. -- The 39 Steeps Compendium of Brilliant yet Rather Commonplace Musings.

I freely admit, my gongfu is white belt, and I thus have some trepidation about adding my observations about Yunnan Sourcing's β sample, as part of The Half Dipper's special pu-erh tasting event. Nevertheless, Grasshopper, I will dare to go where tea masters should slap me silly.

For more of background on pu-erh tea, including some introductory material, please skim my other thoughts here. In the past I had only experienced shu pu-erh, which means the leaves had been oxidized in such to imitate of how green (sheng) pu-erh tastes after a few years of fermentation. This is an entirely different experience.

β is a green pu-erh, pressed in 2009 and distributed by Yunnan Sourcing, a reputable dealer in pu-erh. The cake was pressed quite tightly, but in such a way that I could easily separate the individual leaves, jigsaw-puzzle style, from one another. I noticed quite a bit of silvery tips among the darker leaf. The attractive aroma is like sweet, Southern barbecue: honey, smoke, hot spice. After the initial rinse, the leaf took on a warm, tobacco and mulch scent.

As I did in the α pu-erh sample, I roughly imitated the Chouzhou pu-erh preparation style found here. I have taken extensive notes on the multiple steepings I enjoyed, but I'll summarize them here for the sake of brevity.

After the rinse, the first four steepings (ranging from 10s to 15s) revealed a richly golden-orange colored liquor with a distinctly sweet green herb and tobacco flavor, along with some bitterness (which may easily be attributed to my gongfu ability). Upon the fifth steeping, however, the tea had arrived. The bitterness was gone, and it left a lovely, honey-sweet, herb-and-tobacco note; it reminded me of a decent white wine, in its delicate boldness and its balance between dryness and fruit.

Please feel free to skip this part, because it's been summarized above. I do wish to preserve my notes here, however, for reference.

Rinse: 10s

Steeping 1: 13s
I originally intended this to be a 10-second steeping, but because my pot has a seven-second pour and I started pouring right as I counted to 10, I realized I had oversteeped slightly. Ah, well. The golden-orange, transparent liquor (thought with some leaf dust at the bottom of the fairness pitcher) is honey-sweet, but also has a bitterness at the back of the throat, which I attribute to my oversteeping. A green, tobacco flavor is primary, though without any smokiness. Light, sharp, bright. This is enjoyable and memorable.

Steeping 2: 11s
I didn't know what to expect from a green pu-erh, but I suspected it would be very harsh (per other descriptions I had read). This has probably the same acerbic quality I find in many first-flush Darjeelings, and a fair bit of bitterness, as well. But it's balanced against the honey-like sweetness in the liquor. I have no idea whatsoever how this would age, but as a self-drinker, I must say it's enjoyable enough, and has quite a bit of sophistication, of complexity. The green, sweet herbal quality becomes very evident in the huigan [sweet aftertaste, primarily recognized retronasally: that is, from the back of the throat, rising up to the nasal passages], after the bitterness has toned down on the tongue. Now, I hasten to add, a seasoned gongfu master would doubtless be able to massage the sweetness out of the leaf and avoid the bitterness; but I must do with my own level of knowledge, and this is what I get.

Steeping 3
At this point, I am noticing again a slight sensitivity in my stomach to the green pu-erh, which I'm counterbalancing with French bread. As I sip and nibble, I am thinking of what a sophisticated pleasure this is, like Cuban cigars. Not that I have ever had a cigar, Cuban or otherwise. Sadly, musing thus broadcasts how unsophisticated I am, because the truly sophisticated would never think such a boorish thing. (And do notice how many times I can use the word, sophisticated, in a paragraph.)

(If you want Tony Santana to roll cigars for your wedding, do click here.)

Steeping 4: 15s
The green/tobacco flavors are still very strong, with that sweet aftertaste growing more distinct as time goes on, though with that bitter edge (not entirely unpleasant).

Steeping 5: 13s
Bingo. Suddenly, it seems the true quality of the tea has arrived. Sweet, light, beautiful tobacco-and-green herbs flavor. The first four steepings now seem like the time spent in the restaurant bar, waiting for the table, and I could drink this all day long. It's smooth and bright, just about perfectly to my liking. Where did the bitterness go? Suddenly, it's all sweetness and mild astringency, a bit like a fresh, slightly fruity but dry white wine. With the bitterness in abeyance, I begin to notice the full mouthfeel, which coats my entire mouth and throat. Truly nice.

Steeping 6: 14s
Crisp and light, without a trace of bitterness. Gorgeous. Writing summary now.

Steeping 7: 15s
Again, very crisp, like a white wine. After all these steepings, I'm feeling quite good energy and focus. I rather wish I could start my day with this feeling. The aftertaste reminds me of a good Darjeeling, with the pleasantly acerbic lightness coupled with that sweet quality. It interests me to find that highgrown Darjeelings and pu-erh can produce such a similar huigan, and I don't really know why that would be. At this point, I can see the tea settles into this sweet dryness, and seems to be maintaining that quite nicely. I will keep steeping this, but suspending the notes here. If I feel it necessary to add something later, I will do so in an update.

Thank you for reading!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review Series Pu-erh 1: "Alpha" by Yunnan Sourcing

I am delighted to be a part of a Pu-erh tea tasting, hosted by Hobbes at The Half Dipper blog, with the leaf generously provided by Yunnan Sourcing. Yunnan Sourcing has been getting some very favorable attention of late as a helpful source for Pu-erh teas, which originate in this region of China. And if you haven't read Hobbes's limpid prose, please wander through his blog and enjoy yourselves.

[UPDATE: Hobbes posted about this pu-erh here, and it is called the Yunzhiyuan Ruicaoxiang "Yiwuzhidao Guafengzhai." Ironically, that was exactly what I was going to guess.]

A quick bit of background: I am not a pu-erh aficionado, but rather a passionate tea enthusiast, and so I cannot identify which year's vintage of which factory a pu-erh might be. My tea life has been spent steeped (so to speak) primarily in the Himalayan teas of Darjeeling, Nilgiri, Sikkim, and Nepal, and I discovered pu-erh only a couple years ago.

Now, as I spent time reading an heroic amount about the broad topic of pu-erh, I discovered that the "pu-erh boom" had just gone bust, and that a dismaying amount of counterfeit pu was floating around, muddying up the waters so much that a newbie like myself had very little chance of getting his hands on a verifiably decent bit of this leaf that I would be able to afford; and besides, I had no idea how to prepare it or what to expect. Because I did not want to drink low-quality pu-erh that would inhibit my ability to develop an informed palate, I stayed away.

Cut ahead to this last year, and I've now had several examples of pu-erh, which I consumed happily, knowing full well that I had no idea what I was doing, nor the quality of the leaf I was drinking. A fun (though not terribly educational) time was had by all, and my pu-erh adventures can be found here.

When Hobbes sent out an open invitation to be part of a pu-erh tasting, I jumped at the chance. At last, an opportunity presented itself to learn something in the presence of those vastly more knowledgeably than I. I anxiously awaited the package, and when one arrived (with return address in Chinese characters), I tore it open . . . and found that this is a blind tasting, and the bags are labeled, "Alpha," "Beta," . . . "Epsilon." In a way, this is a good thing, because it throws me back on my palate, my observation, and my sense of adventure.

I recently watched a video in which the proprietor of the "Wrong Fu Cha" blog made a pot of pu-erh in the Chaozhou gongfu style, which involved keeping the Yixing pot in a vessel of hot water to maintain temperature. You can watch the video here. I was glad to see tea preparation done in a way I could conceivably imitate, and so I did. The only thing the video does not show is how often it's necessary to empty out the big bowl as the water cools and needs to be replenished. When you're doing 6 or 8 or 10 or more steepings, be prepared to dump and refill any number of times.

Dry leaf: pretty well compressed, and the leaves came apart with a bit of effort. I didn't want to break the leaves, making the resultant brew more bitter, so I took my time with this, separating the leaves like pieces of a puzzle. The dry leaves are quite green (sheng, I believe), not black, so this is not a cooked pu-erh (shu), but rather one that is intended for long-term storage, perhaps? I would imagine so. They have a bit of silver, a bit of woody stem to it. The aroma is like blackberries, to my nose; and a bit like the oak smoke campfires I grew up with, when we vacationed in Michigan.

As longtime readers of this blog (both of me) know, I write fairly extensive tasting notes here, which I use to help me remember the experiences and make purchasing decisions. Do feel free to skip to the bottom, where you can find my OVERALL IMPRESSIONS. Kind of like skipping all the boring plot and character development and going straight to the epilogue, when skimming a book right before a test.

Rinse: 10s
I use a quick rinse to awaken the leaves, then pour off into my wenxianbei [aroma cup set] and fairness pitcher, and get everything ready for the real action to follow.

1st steeping: 15s
Lightly aromatic-- again, like the campfire aroma of the dry pu-erh leaves, and like blackberries and oak impressions. What a surprisingly light, rich flavor for a first steeping. I know green pu-erhs are reportedly quite bitter and harsh, but this is not like that at all. (First time, as I mentioned, too much leaf did lead to a bitter experience, but this time it's great.) This stuff is addictive. The berry and smoke notes are superseded by a roasted honey taste in the huigan, which is the sweet aftertaste that Hobbes has explained thoroughly in his blog. This cup of tea is a lovely, pure yellow-gold color, not the deep brownish-orange I have experienced with other pu-erhs of my acquaintance.

As a side note, sipping this reminds me a bit of the first time I had a high-quality Lapsang Souchong, produced in Dong Mu village, where this type of tea originated. While I had had LS before, I had never had the real deal, and the difference was telling. Here, too, the gulf between this beeng and the little tuochas I've had before is quite wide. The subtlety is pleasing, and I begin to understand what all the fuss is about.

And by the way, Hobbes, if you have braved my torpid prose and prolix description this far: Thank you again for your great advice on enjoying tea, which you wrote a couple months ago. I would by no means feel brave enough to present my thoughts about this pu-erh, much less one presented to me in a blind tasting like this, had you not written so encouragingly about simply enjoying the experience and not allowing other, more knowledgeable writers drive me into silence about the topic. While my gongfu might not be black belty enough to be informative to more experienced drinkers, perhaps people who have not drunk pu-erh might find this helpful, and it might encourage them to try this strange and surprising genre of tea.

2nd steeping: 15s
Still, the first impression is, "campfire." This is really a very specific sense memory, which comes from countless hours poking sticks into fires made primarily of oak hardwood, and cooking marshmallows, and being allowed to play outside after dark. In other words, an entirely pleasant memory evoked by the smooth, fruity woodiness of this tea. The flavor is quite consistent with the first steeping, though with a slightly more drying, acerbic quality and a warming in my stomach. I am told green pu-erh can be a bit rough on the stomach for those not accustomed, so I hope this isn't going to pose a problem. I would be interested to find out what Hobbes thinks of this, and how he thinks it will mature over time.

3rd steeping: 10s
The overall impression is this hardwood campfire smoke, with a lingering sweet vanilla and blackberry flavor hiding at the back of the throat. I'm delighted I had enough of this tea to try a second steeping, because this experience is rich, quite fun, and provides for a lot of surprises. Vanilla notes? Not what I expected. (Perhaps the vanilla is really how my senses translate the sweetness and smoothness, which is overlaid on top of the drying sharpness. Sweet, smooth, dry, sharp. I can see my description makes no sense whatsoever. As we said in high school, "I guess you had to be there.") The pu-erh has a really meaty mouthfeel, which coats my entire mouth and throat.

4th steeping: 13s
Denser minerality to the taste this time. Minerality is the word I'm using to describe the shift from a smoky flavor to something sharper, brighter. The woodiness is still there, but mostly to be found in my wenxianbei [aroma cup], which is a tiny cup that can be held up to the nose and sniffed. When smelling the aroma cup, the lighter, head-note smells seem to arrive first, to be followed by the middle and then lower notes. This has something to do with the rate at which the different catechins and flavinoids and whatnot (for tea has a very complex chemistry) are released into the atmosphere. Anyway, the greenness of the tea is more pronounced now, as the tea begins to hit its stride.

5th steeping: 15s
I've read that a proper pu flight doesn't really start until the fifth steeping. It's here that most of the storage aromas are gone, and the true character of the tea begins to be revealed. I've read that some tea drinkers will just toss the first four steepings as unworthy of attention, but I'd hate to miss out on any part of the experience. On the other hand, if a tea is 20 or 30 (or 60?!) steepings in duration, at that point you might as well skip to the good stuff. To me, this tastes of roasted honey, and a very high, light fruity note that seems to come up from behind, after the richer, darker note: like a flute and an oboe hanging in the air after the rest of the orchestra has fallen into silence.

I am really liking this.

6th steeping:
Decidedly lighter. The aroma is much harder to discern, but the flavor and the mouthfeel/texture is still quite bright. Again, I would probably describe this as having a metallic quality, which I'm using to try to convey a complexity and sharpness. Lovely flavor at the very back of my throat (necessary to slurp a bit to cause this experience to occur), of blackberries again, and woodsmoke, but now the sweet honey has receded. When my tastebuds are allowed to relax for a minute or two after sipping, a lovely perfume rises up in the throat, floral and delicately light. It's very easy to drink, very welcoming.

7th steeping: 17s
I wish, dear reader, you were here with me, because right now you'd be smelling the delicious aroma from the cup of pu-erh, which greets me upon each steeping. This no longer makes me think of a campfire, but rather a delicate brightness.

This tea can clearly go on a bit further, but I am going to suspend the review here because my stomach is starting to feel a touch tender. I'll update tomorrow, perhaps, if I have it in me to keep this steeping going later tonight. At any rate, what a lovely, delicate, complex tea this is. I have no skill to be able to tell you where it comes from, but I can say this is easily the best pu-erh I've ever drunk. I can't wait for the rest of these pu packages, so I can start to compare notes among them. Though it's evening, I feel energetic and relaxed from the tea. Perhaps it's Qi, the Chinese concept of the divine energy that flows to me from the tea; maybe it's a combination of theanine and caffeine. Either way, I feel great (except for mild upset of my stomach) and look forward to a good evening. Thank you again, Hobbes, for allowing me to be a part of this tea tasting.

Cheers, all!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Upcoming Tea Series

I am composing a number of tea review series, variations on several themes, which I'll be exploring in the weeks ahead. I'll be hopping between them, but please return to read:

  • Darjeeling Tasting Series
  • Nepal Tasting Series
  • Dan Cong Oolong Tasting Series
  • Pu-erh Tasting Series

There will be a number of other tastings mixed in there as well, to keep things interesting (for me, at least). If any green tea distributors or farms wish to be part of a tasting series, please let me know, and I'll put one together.

And in case you're wondering, the above image is from the Book of Kells. I added it here because the interlocking series of reviews I'm embarking on, of glorious, intense teas, made me think of the complex fractals found in this ancient illustration.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Review: An Ji Bai Cha '09, Grand Tea

It's amazing what you find when you just start searching for crazy things on Google. I typed in, "wolf drinking tea," and lo and behold, this image is what I discovered. Thank you, Migy Illustration, for the great image. Please go to their Web site for much illustration goodness.

Grand Tea: An Ji Bai Cha

Today I find myself wolfing down Grand Tea's An Ji Bai Cha like it's going out of style. Of course, if wolves drank tea and dressed as snappily as the ones in the illustration, they might not have quite the public relations nightmare they've developed.

An Ji Bai Cha has quite a unique story: it's a long-lost tea that was recreated only a few years ago by tea sleuths putting together hints found in various ancient texts. I wrote about it in detail here, and I hope you'll go there to read about where this enjoyable tea comes from.

When I open the package from Grand Tea, provided to me via the folks at, I am confronted with a singingly fresh, bright, grassy fragrance that instantly takes me outside. The leaves look much like a longjing tea: two fresh green leaves and a bud, carefully formed by carefully orchestrated movements, whereby the tea processors place the green leaves into large woks coated with a small amount of tea oil, and they pan fry them using special hand movements (usually 10) that fold and refold the leaves into flat spears.

My notes, and I quote: "SOOOO GOOD."

In a Japanese teapot, I used 1 tsp/cup at 70C, for 4 minutes.

As is typical with an An Ji Bai Cha, it is a pale gold with a very slight greenish cast. Beautifully sweet with slight hint of bitterness to the tongue (maybe less time steeping would work better). This tea has much the same effect on me that good cranberry juice has: I can drink it endlessly, insatiably, and never feel like I've had enough. I would get to the bottom of the cup, surprised that I was done already, and ready for more.

Comparing three Arya Estate '09 Darjeelings

It's moments like this that remind me why I drink tea. I've come a long way from avoiding stale teabag tea, to being able to experience (at once) three of the premiere teas of Darjeeling. It's hard to express how lovely is the aroma I'm experiencing. It's like springtime; it's like a mountain of spices.

I have before me three cups of Arya Estate Darjeeling, provided very kindly by Thunderbolt Tea, via, where I am a contributor. The three teas are:

Arya SFTGFOP1 China '09
Arya FTGFOP1 Clonal '09
Arya SFTGFOP1 Sample '09

What surprises me is how different the tea leaves appear, but how alike the liquors themselves are. The aroma rising from the three cups is intoxicating.

Arya SFTGFOP1 China '09
Slightly bitter, complex, astringent, leads to sweet aftertaste. High notes of cherry or berry fruit;
  • Dry leaves: Twisted green-black leaves. In terms of oxidation, the middle.
  • Wet leaves: Quite large leaves , nice tobacco aroma.

Arya FTGFOP1 Clonal '09
Richer taste than the first and third; deeper flavor. because of more oxidation? Cherries. Spun sugar.
  • Dry leaves: Orthodox preparation, darkest oxidation; mostly black, a little green.
  • Wet leaves: darkest oxidation of the three; a rich red-green. A bit difficult to discern the aroma, in comparison with the other two.

Arya SFTGFOP1 Sample '09
Brightest, most astringent sample. Brilliant example of a high-end Darjeeling.
  • Dry leaves: Leaves appear as oxidized as the China '09. However, the smallest in size of leaf.
  • Wet leaves: Lightest oxidation, almost entirely green; beautiful garden-fresh scent, like my Grandpa Allison's rose garden.

As I compared the three Darjeelings, I was struck by how difficult the tea taster's job must be. My palate, though much more sophisticated than it was a few years ago, was simply overjoyed by what it was drinking, but trying to explain the subtle differences among three teas of the same estate, grown at the same time, sitting next to one another was challenging. I had hoped that this review would be really in-depth, an exploration of the movement among the leaves of these plants. Instead, I discovered that being a tea taster would be a job for a more highly skilled drinker than I. When I read that tea shop owners will cup 60 or 100 different, nearly identical teas in a day, and then be able to make value judgments among them, I start to understand what that would entail.

For my interest, questions I am left with: What are the differences between the clonal and the Chinese varietals? How do these differences affect the final cupping? Are there characteristics I would expect to find that would help me when making purchasing decisions?

I know, not much useful information here for a tea connoisseur, except for me saying that a tea cupper's job is a challenging one, and I can only imagine how much practice and training it would take to become one.