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.


Wojciech Bońkowski said...

Thank you for the interesting post.
The Bloomberg article you link to is worrying, and shows how helpless we are against huge climatic forces. While tea plantations can contribute to mudslides it would be better to address the real reasons why typhoons are increasing in power in frequency. I don't see tea among them; more likely, the Alishan-Taipei highway that is also quoted in the article.

I think you're wrong to identify Alishan and Lishan. They are two distinct mountains in Central Taiwan. Dayuling is part of Lishan, though the average height of Alishan is higher I think.

The opinion of Winnie Yu you quote is exaggerated, IMHO. No doubt gaoshan on average is an expensive tea with plenty of couterfeits but it's reasonably available from reputed merchants. Dayuling is very limited so the price indicated is more or less true but generic Lishan can easily be had for $100-120 / lb.