Friday, November 20, 2009

Green Tea Review Series 6: Aura Teas, Jian Meng Green Tea 2009

Very generously, my friends at Aura Teas sent me a variety of teas from their private stash of samples, which they are not (at least at this time) offering to the public. Amazing to have such an opportunity! Today I am tasting something called Jian Meng green tea.

I'm sitting in a Panera for work purposes, and enjoying the free Wi-Fi. My hosts are very kindly offering me all the free hot water I can drink, and they've been exclaiming over the wonderful aromas of the teas I've been steeping here today. The JINGtea Tea-iere is a novelty that, once they understood the purpose of it, has been surprisingly excited about seeing. Who knows? Perhaps Panera home office will get a call about offering high-quality teas to their customers, rather than the stuff they currently offer.

I've never heard of this tea, nor can I find references to it online, except that the term, Jian Meng, is apparently been used as to describe a Chinese pu-erh brick. Other than that: nada. So let's dive in.

The leaves are a pale green, fairly small leaf, and this sample has no small amount of broken leaf, but no stemminess. Beautifully fragrant leaves-- have I mentioned how much I love the highly fragrant greens? The aroma coming from the wet leaves is seriously intoxicating. I'm happy I'm sitting in an out-of-the-way corner at Panera, so fellow customers won't think I'm dangerously bizarre for sniffing my JINGtea Tea-iere, in which I steeped the leaves for three minutes with steaming, filtered water. Perhaps it's all the muscatel Darjeeling speaking, which I've been drinking lately, but there's a grape quality to the aroma: a fruity-floral, rather than vegetal, thing going on.

The liquor is a tawny gold, almost an orange, and it is highly fragrant, as well (which is not always the case). The Jian Meng is quite light on the tongue, with a bright quality that nevertheless doesn't have a particularly long-lasting aftertaste. I can taste a flavor rather like chestnuts, a touch of citrus fruit; and that umami that all the kids go on about nowadays, which makes me think of mushrooms, and well-seared steaks, and rich French onion soup. (Which is rather an odd thing to think about when drinking a lightly crisp, bracing green tea, but there you have it.)

Initially, though, there is a sharp bite to each sip (at least, while the tea is quite hot), accompanied by a lovely, drying mouthfeel that I find arresting. The dry mouthfeel continues on, even after the initial sharp flavor of the tea too-quickly dissipates.

In my experience, the Jian Meng's enjoyment seems mostly bound up in its beautiful aroma and it's substantial mouthfeel. The flavor, unfortunately, seems to die off too quickly after sipping, but for the umami, which I mostly experience almost by inference.

It's admittedly a bit odd, discussing a tea that is not in wide circulation and which I am unlikely to experience again, because I can make no recommendations to buy or not for an unavailable item. Nevertheless, how enjoyable to break open something I've never heard of and which is its own unique delight, with its own character and personality. What a pleasure!

As a side note: When I can find more information about this vintage tea from Aura Teas, I will add it here as an addendum.

(The above image is also an item of uncertain provenance: Maybe Jackson Pollack's "Number 1, 1950.")

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Review Series Green Tea 5: Maeda-en Kuki-Cha Twig Tea with Matcha 2009

"Great with sweets."

Japan is a small island. Therefore, the tea farmers have to be very smart agronomers, making the most of the tight spaces they have to grow their crops. Kuki-cha is a crucial part of the system of making the absolute most of the resources they have. After the tender leaves are plucked every Spring, the Japanese choose to then pluck the green shoots and very frugally make that into a tea of its own: kuki-cha.

In this case, Maeda-en blends the shoots with a touch of matcha powder, which is made from the light-sheltered gyokuro leaves and ground into a fine tea dust. Matcha is typically used in the Japanese tea ceremony, but here is added to lend a bit of mellowness to the flavor and brightness to the color.

And brightness! The leaves are by far the lightest green in my tea drawer. When steeped, the liquor is an opaquely rich, saturated, radioactive green color that could easily have been accidentally created by Homer Simpson at the nuclear power plant. When I poured off the tea, I could easily see the sharp difference between the 1/2-inch, pale shoots and the darker leaf matter, which appeared much like cooked spinach.

When I first made the tea (80C, 1min), I found it to be a bit... well, weird and bitter. Sencha, I understand. Matcha, not so much, though I've tasted it at Japanese tea ceremony a couple of times. The tea was vegetal and a bit bitter. I went back to the Web site and read that this pairs well with sweets-- much in line with how the Japanese tea ceremony is designed, with dainty sweets accompanying the rather bitter tea, allowing for greater enjoyment.

So I pulled out our Toll House chocolate chip (on the theory that chocolate and matcha pair nicely together) and made the tea again (85C, 1min), and did have better results. The buttery quality of the tea was lovely and quite sweet (once the bitterness was taken care of), and I was able to enjoy the lightly vegetal quality-- a bit like asparagus.

Typically, I enjoy teas without accompaniment: just me and the naked leaves. In this case, the tea actually seems deliberately designed to be drunk alongside the sweets, much as British teas are cultivated to best survive the cultural habit of adding milk and sugar and drinking alongside scones and cream. Drunk on those terms, honoring the cultural heritage that brought about this tea, it's quite delicate and enjoyable. Drunk, though, in the raw (the tea, I mean: you can enjoy it in whatever state of dress or undress you choose), this makes much less sense and is not nearly as enjoyable.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Review: Tea Forté, Formosa Oolong '09

I didn't sleep last night, and I spent a big chunk of today outside, in the cold, at Goebbert's Pumpkin Farm, along with my baby girl and my little boy. Goebbert's is a farm that has gone the clever route of agritourism, in which they celebrate harvest with, among other things, the world's only Pumpkin-Eating Dinosaur, a haunted house, mazes, a couple giraffes (in north-central Illinois, no less), a pumpkin cannon, apple cider donuts, a cornstalk maze, and even pig races. (Hammy Faye Bacon won by a hair, incidentally.) The baby was warm because she was bundled emphatically, with all my bundling might; and my seven-year-old boy was racing around. So I'm the only one of the three of us who is cold and tired, and feeling just a bit old.

ANYWAY, to warm up and attempt to get through the long, dark afternoon of the soul, I am drinking Formosa Oolong by Tea Forté. It is in a clever nylon pyramid-shaped teabag, and I think the leaves within it are in pretty good shape.

Hidden within a tea bag, I can tell very little about their appearance. The steeped leaves have a pleasant enough, sweetly roasted aroma. I don't really think the nylon bag affected the aroma. The tea bags reside inside a pyramid-shaped card-stock paper wrapper, and they have a cute metallic string with a little leaf on the end. Stylish looking and neat. Typically, none of the teas I enjoy are distributed in tea bags, so I don't have much to compare this to.

I used just-under-boiling water (around 195 or so), in a covered, glass cup, for about 3 minutes. The Web site suggests 2-4 minutes, so I'm right in the zone.

A transparent, brown liquor with a roasty aroma. The flavor does not really work for me. I noticed an odd flavor note that makes me think of a paper bag. Now, I know that the nylon bag has nothing to do with this (not being made of paper, of course), but nevertheless there's something there I can't quite account for. Very light mouthfeel.

I don't really want to belabor this review with the history of oolong, or the significance of Formosa tea-making practice, nor the proper place of teabags in the enjoyment of my favorite beverage. The thing is, I don't enjoy this tea, and I find I haven't finished the cup. I wonder if the paper packaging failed to protect these unfortunate tea leaves from off-flavors it might have picked up in transit or in storage. I'd be interested to taste this again, if I knew it was freshly packaged and stored in airtight foil. I don't think my leaves gave me the same experience that was had by the distributor when they first received their shipment from the tea farms in Formosa.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

REVIEW: Li Shan Oolong 2009, JING Tea

Li Shan Oolong, 2009

"Oh, this is going to be good."

The aroma of the first steeping greeted me with an intensity that I'd forgotten. I've had Li Shan oolong only once before (a Fang Tea offering), and it had knocked my socks off. When that first whiff of this intensely fragrant leaf hit me as I poured out, I was reminded that I like Li Shan, and I look forward to tasting what this has in store for me.

Li Shan is a high-grown (over 2000 meters) mountain tea, and the region was recently in the news because a horrible hurricane swept the area, and the mountain tea gardens were unable to hold the topsoil, which washed down and caused havoc in the communities below. The Taiwan legislature has a bill in the works that (if passed) will make it illegal to grow Li Shan oolong at these high elevations, for fear that global warming will cause more hurricanes and thus more havoc. You can read more about this here.

1st Steeping: 25s
For the first steeping, I chose 25 seconds of just-boiling, filtered water that has been soaking with Japanese charcoal, and tea made in my new glass teapot, courtesy of the very kind folks at JING Tea. What a beautifully fragrant tea, with a creamy, milky aroma. The lemon-yellow liquor is perfectly clear, with a tiny amount of broken leaf that has snuck through the filter into the fairness cup. Perhaps it's the power of suggestion by the creamy aroma, but the mouthfeel of the tea is thick, quite substantial. Creamy, in fact. The balled leaves opened into springy, summer-grass green leaves that are only partially unfurled. This promises a number of lovely steepings. The damp leaves are deeply aromatic, and they seem only lightly oxidized, with reddish-brown only at the very, very edge of the leaf. I'm fairly partial to lightly oxidized oolongs, and this is quite typical of the type of tea I've discovered I really love.

I admit, there is a faint bitterness in the cup, only a frisson, and I believe it adds to the attractiveness of the offering by Jing. I don't usually look for bitterness in a cup of tea, but it's one of the five tastes, and we shouldn't try to avoid it in every circumstance, but rather embrace it as part of the sensory experience. In this case, it adds an edge to the otherwise very smooth cup.

2nd Steeping: 20s
Again, the lemon-yellow cup, clear and lovely. As the wenxianbei [sipping cup] cools, the aroma moves from these creamy, thick aromas to a more autumn-garden kind of aroma: earthy but light. Still, a very hint of bitterness, though less than on the first steeping. It's possible I oversteeped slightly, and so I realized I had a word problem on my hands. So I asked for some advice on my tea math.

Word Problem: Stevie wants to steep his Li Shan oolong for 20 seconds. His new teapot pours out at 7 seconds. He does not want to oversteep. Should he (a) start pouring at 20s, knowing that the latter part of the brew will have oversteeped by 7 seconds? Does he (b) start pouring at 13 seconds, knowing that the last drop will be steeped at exactly 20s? Or (c) does Stevie start pouring at 16.5 seconds [if he is able to be this accurate], knowing that the tea will, on average, be 20s?

Solution: As of the third steeping, I am going to go with (c), on the assumption that the average of 20s (or whatever length of time I'm steeping) is better than under- or oversteeping. I'm open to suggestions if this is not other people's tea practice.

3rd Steeping, 20s
I find it's difficult for me to describe this tea. Li Shan oolong is memorable among a thousand flavors: rich, earthy, fragrant, sharp, bright, subtle, redolent of cooking herbs and buttery bread. There's an undercurrent, oddly, of unusual animal aromas I associate with a day at the zoo: exotic, pungent, musky. In other words, my description makes no sense whatsoever, and it gives you no idea of what I'm actually experiencing.

So I'll try this another way: The difficult-to-describe aroma and flavor have coated my mouth and throat, they're rising up into my nose from the back of my throat, and the aftertaste is lingering a surprisingly long time. I like it a lot, though I can't say I would need to drink it every day of my life.

Michael J. Coffey wrote recently that it is a crime against tea (to horribly paraphrase him and invite correction) to drink while writing, or write while drinking. He maintains that converting the experience from the nondiscursive flav0r-aroma-texture-energy moment, into a carefully edited piece of language blunts the pure enjoyment of the moment, and it inhibits sense memory. I can't disagree. But that being said, I write to help me remember over the long run, what I had experienced at one point, and to help me make purchasing, drinking, and serving decisions. And hopefully to encourage others to open themselves up to exquisite tea experiences they might not have thought to try otherwise.

Again, thanks to JING Tea for very generously allowed me to taste their Li Shan oolong (also called Ali Shan), a high-mountain tea from Taiwan. I wrote rather extensively about LiSan oolong here, and invite you to read about my very first foray into this intensely beautiful type of tea. I will excerpt here from an excerpt there, which I took from Winnie Yu's blog:

Li Shan Oolongs are the most intensely fragrant, smooth buttery oolong there is, topping Taiwan oolongs growing everywhere else. Particularly, there is a pronounced taste of gan that lingers for an entire day, with less and less astringency the higher the elevation, no matter how strong a cup of tea you make. Incredibly sweet with a taste of fruit that's been cooked at high heat, Li Shan tea no doubt is so highly sought after, many unscrupulous merchants would try to dupe the unsuspecting consumer. It is highly unlikely to buy any Li shan tea less than $200 USD p/lb. at a retail level, and at that price, one is guaranteed that it came from the second-flush or 'second spring', or lower elevations at 1700 meters. Da Yu Ling oolongs are well over $300 p/lb., and difficult to acquire even if one would pay for it, for all of the crops are usually spoken for.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Review: Big Red Robe Supreme (Da Hong Pao) 2009, JINGTea

Recently, I bought a simple gaiwan, as well as wensienbei, the Taiwanese-style aroma cup set. I tried them out on this Big Red Robe by JING tea and had a great time. (Sadly! I broke the gaiwan and still haven't replaced it. I will, I will, I promise.)

I have come to love Big Red Robe oolongs. At least, the ones I've tasted have been uniformly delightful, and JING tea's is no exception.

I steeped the tea with the best gongfu I could muster: I filled the gaiwan a little less than about a quarter of the way with the leaves, and used just-under-boiling water throughout the steeping sequence. By using a lot of leaf and many short steeps, I am able to drink tea in chapters, opening up the flavor of the leaves without having an overly weak cup. A good gongfu session can last an entire afternoon, with many many steeps. I recorded a few of them here, but I kept steeping well after I had run out of time to take sipping notes.

Steeping 1: 25s
The leaves are a rich, dark color, of what seems to be a medium-roasted DHP with a high level of oxidation. Leaves are beautifully resilient, with a sharp aroma that has high citrus notes. Quite brilliant.

Steeping 2: 20s
The aroma cup carries this intense, sharp aroma I describe as Christmas berries-- spicy, citrus, light, sharp. A slightly bitter edge that could easily be attributed to my inadequate gongfu.

Steeping 3: 20s
Almost a vanilla aroma arising; berries and pine, again making me think of Christmas after breakfast. The taste is... okay, not fantastic but good. It's slightly bitter, but again, I think it's my fu as I get used to my new equipment.

Steeping 4: 20s
Less sharp and intense, the bitterness abating (from the roasting process, most likely), I now start to get to know the tea itself. Woodsy astringency. My, but my table got wet. There is an attractive roughness to this tea, a hard-elbowed quality I rather like. It's the huigan that carries this lovely quality-- the rising sweetness that makes me think of burning sweet applewood, say; ever so slightly smoky, fruity but not fruit (again, applewood, not apple).

Steeping 5: 35s
Aroma: sweet sushi rice, applewood. The aroma seems to dissipate more quickly. The deep brown-gold color has become a lighter orange-amber. Beautiful sweetness, but with a burn in the throat that catches the attention and is sharply at variance with the lightness in the mouth. There is a lovely mouthfeel, substantial even at the fifth steeping. A slight minerality develops in the mouth, like iron perhaps, as the more prominent, roasty flavors are in retreat.

Steeping 6: 45s
Most surprising here is the huigan, which rises up a couple minutes after drinking. Complicated flavors that remind me of a bonbon thing I once had at the Russian Tea Cafe, in Chicago: as it melted, different flavors would appear (first the pomegranate sorbet, then the ice cream, finally the orange-scented white chocolate). Here, a progression. The flavor is now quite muted, but still enjoyable. Learning to burn myself a little bit less on the gaiwan.

Steeping 7: 55s
Finally, a bit of floral brightness appears in the aroma. Flavor receding, but the mouthfeel-- not as dry now, but substantial-- is quite good. I don't know what I think Qi is, but I feel quite energetic and alert, without a hint of anxiety or jitteriness.

Steeping 8: 65s
The aroma is now like a candy at the front, in the high notes, with a hint of tobacco following. And then very little aroma following through.

A very nice DHP, with a robust character that carries through a number of steepings. Complex and quite interesting.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Review Series Green Tea 4: JingTea, Dragon Well 2009 (In a JingTea Tea-iere)

Jing Tea sells a lovely Dragon Well, which they describe thus:

Picked on 5th April 2009 from Cedar Hill garden. Our Dragon Well green tea is characterised by enticing sweet aromas of freshly plucked tea buds and teasing orchard fruit.

Dragon Well is one of the most famous green teas in China. Complex and multi-layered with warm, creamy, soft plant notes filled out by understated peach.

The traditional method of making Dragon Well is what really sets it apart. Each individual tea bud is hand-pressed and shaped in a wok to achieve the perfect level of roasting.

Certified organic by the Soil Association. Fair Trade certified by IMO Switzerland.

I invite you to visit their nicely informative Blog, which has quite a bit of information about this year's Dragon Well, including this video:

Quite nice, eh? The folks at Jing do a great job with marketing their product, making wonderful use of the Internet to spread the word on their tea.

Very typical for a good Lonjing, these leaves are brightly green, sharp, with very little broken leaf. I can't resist taking long jing leaves and munching on them as I prepare the water, because they're like tea candy. You should try this, if you haven't already.

THE PREPARATION (in the JING Tea Tea-iere)
Per the Web site instructions, 80C, 4min. I prepared this in a glass Jing Tea Tea-iere, which is a glass carafe that has a metal filter that fits nicely at the top. I have been playing a lot with this bit of teaware, and for green teas like this, the thin, glass wall allows the temperature of the water to dissipate, avoiding stewing the leaves. I used to use a French press for making tea, but it had the unfortunate side-effect of smashing the leaves down into the bottom of the carafe, which both wasted some tea and crushed the leaves, releasing some bitterness. I wouldn't advise that now, but the Tea-iere seems to solve that problem pretty nicely. It's convenient, and the carafe is pretty attractive.

The liquor is the palest green, perfectly transparent, with a sharp, bright, delightful aroma. If you enjoy beautifully aromatic teas, a good longjing is definitely something you should check out. The aroma is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this type of tea, and it can be intoxicating.

But how does it taste? Slightly nutty, a bit like almond. I experienced a lightly drying mouthfeel. JingTea's offering has quite a lot of character, with a warming, friendly-yet-crisp, vegetal tone. Next to no bitterness, and a wonderful huigan (which is a sweet aftertaste that asserts itself retronasally, after the cup has been completed) that follows me around rather a while longer than I expected.

I've not been drinking as much green tea lately as usual, and this meets me exactly where I need to be. Crisp, aromatic, complex, friendly.