Thursday, February 25, 2010

Review: Dao Tea Balhyocha

Black tea

In appearance, like a typical black tea: tight, small twists of pure black leaf.

Again, in appearance, like any other black tea: dark, mahogany-brown cup, so deep I cannot see to the bottom of my white (though, admittedly, rather deep) cup.

On the surface, this seems very typical for a black tea: a touch of bitterness, an apparent simplicity. But then immediately, there's an indefinable-- This is a challenge, because it's my job to define these flavors. But the problem with much tea is that taste memories are highly subjective, and that it rarely helps a reader to understand what the character of the tea is like. But, being game, I'll give it a go anyway.

If this song is a voice, it would be a mezzo-soprano: a very strong middle-high range of distinct flavor that is unique enough, I'm struggling to put my finger on it, which primarily announces itself in the aftertaste, once the tea's been swallowed. When drinking this tea, take that sip, and then sit for about a minute without tasting anything else. Pay close attention to what's happening on your palate, and you will be rewarded by a rising taste of some unique hardwood, perhaps; a flavor like walking in a scrub meadow: a bit mossy, a bit dry, a bit weedy. Very satisfying and unusual.

In the low range, there is a bit of a throaty growl to the tea, which announces itself on my palate like a more typical black tea's personality. I wouldn't call this a smooth tea, because of this somewhat flinty edge to it. But at the same time, it is light, not heavy at all, but without the floral or sweetly fruity notes you normally would find accompanying such a light tea.

In all, for its unique flavor profile, a great choice for someone trying to enjoy an unusual morning cup.

Monday, February 8, 2010

INTRODUCING: Chicago Tea Garden's Golden Bi Luo

To my great delight, one of my tea friends of the Chicago Tea Confab, Tony Gebely, has opened the metaphorical doors on Chicago Tea Garden, and by so doing, he is raising the level of Chicago's tea culture.

During our informal tea tastings/gatherings of the Chicago-area folks who blog about tea, Lainie, Tony, Thomas, and I periodically gather for the Chicago Tea Confab, where we discuss the shape of American tea culture-- specifically Chicago's-- and taste treasures from one another's tea troves (though we do try not to be so alliterative, as a general rule). Tony had recently gone on a search for a great, authentic Chinese tea experience and discovered that to get a really great cup of such tea in Chicago, one had to travel up to Evanston to Lainie's favorite, Dream About Tea.

Seriously, for a world-class city, it's a wonder we haven't seen the type of tea Renaissance that has been developing in the U.S. in other population centers, such as San Francisco, or L.A., or New York, or D.C. Where is our Winnie Yu or Imen Shan? While our tea shops can be delightful and instructive (My favorite is TeaGschwendner, and there are many others), Chicagoans still toddle up to Starbucks for their cup of soy-latte macchiato joe.

Which brings me back to Tony. He and his business partner(s) have taken matters into their own hands, and they've started the beautifully named Chicago Tea Garden, which will primarily (as I understand it) sell teas sourced through David Lee Hoffman's extensive tea network, rather than merely reselling teas that can easily be found elsewhere. For Chicagoans, this is a big deal, because it represents a move forward in what tea is available to Chicagoans. TeaGschwendner, Dream about Tea, and Chicago Coffee & Tea Exchange (among others) now have some great company as they collectively build up our tea culture.

The first tea I can report on is Chicago Tea Garden's Golden Bi Luo. I've had and loved Bi Luo Chun before, which is a green tea whose name means, "Snail Spring," a reference to an early Spring-picked tea whose leaves have been hand-rolled into shapes resembling tiny snails. Because this is typically a complex green tea from Jiangsu province, I was very curious about how the "Snail Spring" tea would be treated when sourced from Yunnan province, as a black tea.

Following Chicago Tea Garden's instructions, included in the packaging, I made a number of short steeps at just under boiling (1 min, 1 min, 1.5 min, 1.5 min, &c.), each just slightly longer than the previous, and decanted.

Interesting, lovely. The leaves are that golden tippy appearance you'd expect from a golden Yunnan tea, but folded into the snail shapes you'd see with a Bi Luo Chun. The aroma in the tin tickles the nose, a dryish spiciness. The spent leaves are reddish-orange, fully formed leaves, maintaining the two-leaves-and-a-bud appearance they started with. No broken leaves, stems, or dust that I can discern, which speaks of the care that went into the production and shipping.

Over the course of the many steepings, the tea started with a deep reddish-brown cup, which lightened slowly to a pale orange-red. Chicago Tea Garden's description said it would be a golden liquor, but reddish-brown seems a more apt description, at least until the later steepings.

This Golden Bi Luo strongly reminds me somewhat of a Yunnan golden tippy tea, which is of course what it should; with a quite allusively spicy-sweet flavor of black raisins, perhaps, and a surprising smoothness, with no discernible bitterness. A slight burn at the back of the throat accompanies the retronasal huigan, which is the flavor that rises from throat to nose, which then picks up even more flavors in the aftertaste than could be interpreted by the tongue while drinking directly.

Drunk with short steepings, it's a remarkably light cup of tea, with an acerbic edge at the forefront that helps balance the sweetness that follows. I would perhaps experiment with slightly longer steepings, just to see how the tea holds up-- though I would definitely avoid steeping the traditional Western 3 minutes' steeping time, as these leaves seem to want a Chinese-style gongfu method instead. The rolled leaves allow for many steepings, because they release their flavors more slowly than leaves that have not been wound so tightly.

Tony, well done. I definitely look forward to seeing where you go from here. I'm delighted to see what you've got in store for us.

DEAR READER(S): I would be interested in your response to these tea notes, because I'm trying to gauge what kind of information is interesting and useful to you. Wandering meanderings about my childhood memories evoked from the particular tea I'm drinking? Long, involved posts that describe in painful detail each steeping of some pu-erh? Do you want to know more about the production, the terroir, the history of each tea? Or are you pretty happy with the reviews as they are, being that they spring from such a mind as my own, which is good enough for you? And does anybody in God's creation actually read all the way to the bottom of one of these things? And why do you read this blog at all? Is it part of your self-education in all things tea, or are you trying to figure out what teas to buy next, using my descriptions for help in your purchasing decisions? Thank you for your patronage!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Tasting notes: Yibang "White" cake 2009, from Bílý Jeřáb, drunk on a snowy day in Chicago

And behold, something new under the distant, barely warm Sun!

Well, newish to me, anyway: a white pu-erh. I've tasted this type of thing only once before, drunk with the esteemed Chicago Tea Confab of great fame, and now I have the opportunity to drink it alone, with computer ready to take notes, and attempting to keep a year-old baby and a seven-year-old boy quiet enough for that zenlike focus and laser intensity I am so famous for.

The Yibang cake sent to me by my friends from Bílý Jeřáb (there are too many Czech circumflexes and whatnot for me to correctly write that without copying-and-pasting), who are pu-erh aficionados with a great site. Though it's in Czech, they speak perfect English and will be happy to help you get your hands on some very nice examples of pu.

I've been drinking them for the last few months, as I took a break from writing. But I thought I'd try to open up the spigot to write again by telling you about something special, which is the white pu-erh.

Now, pu-erh-- the pressed, fermented, aged green tea from Yunnan province in China-- has been around for ages. But it's only the last couple years that they've been experimenting with white teas, giving them the same treatment. A white tea is typically the bud and perhaps one or two leaves of the tea plant. Because this type of pu-erh is so new, it's impossible to say how it will age, and what the end result will be after 20 or 30 years of storage. So these teas are purchased for immediate drinking at this point, and are to be enjoyed on their own merits.

Bílý Jeřáb's Yibang "white" cake 2009 came in the typical jigsaw puzzle fashion, with all the pieces needing to very carefully be pulled apart without damaging the leaves. In the portion I received as a gift from Bílý Jeřáb, I could very clearly see the white buds with two leaves throughout the cake, with no tea dust or particles of any kind. Quite pristine and lovely, with a light, tobacconist's smell about the dry leaves.

1st steeping: 15s
Because it's such a new tea, I chose to skip the typical rinsing, which I use to wash off some of the dust or whatnot that might accumulate on the leaves through the course of time. The cup was a clear, straw-colored liquor, with a light but distinctively typical pu-erhish flavor, if I might coin the awkward and hopefully never-to-be-used-again term. The fermentation had done its magic on the white buds. I had wondered about this, because a pu-erh is typically made from green leaves, not buds, and I had no idea what the true results might be.

2nd steeping: 20s
Well, 20s or thereabouts. I tend to pour a bit less "scientific," as my dad would say in his faux-German accent, when I have the children bouncing around. My wife has come downstairs on this Saturday morning, reminding me of the much we have to do, and how I'll have to make this tea tasting rather more quickly than I'd like. Second steeping pours out clear, accumulates in the pot a lovely straw-golden color, crystalline in clarity. Unusual in a pu-erh, that. The fragrance is lovely: tobacco, hints of something sweet-- vanilla, perhaps, or something spicier. There's a tiny edge to the tea, which exerts itself at the back of the throat, providing a nice counterpoint to the smoothness and sweetness of the tea. The tea leaves in the pot have taken on the appearance of a perfectly normal white tea, with the typical two-leaves-and-a-bud configuration, and nicely large leaves, freshly spring green. Again, highly unusual in a pu-erh.

Steeping 3: maybe about 30s
This tea is very forgiving. Some pu-erhs are so strong that you can only steep 2 or 3 seconds at first, or you get in danger of bitterness and just too much pu, if you take my meaning. But because this is young, and because the leaves it derives from are by nature very subtle, one can let it steep awhile without much ado. On the third steeping, the tea has become a richer gold color, much like honey. The haylike aroma is stronger, too, and that sharp edge is creeping toward the front of the palate, accompanied by a pleasant drying in the mouth and throat, but without a sense of coating in the throat. In other words, the tea is improving with subsequent steepings, as it wakes up.

Steeping 4: again, maybe about 30s
Now, I'm runnining out of time, and the result will be that I will pick up this tasting again after a couple of hours, which means the tea will lose a bit of its "oomph." Nevertheless, the fourth steeping is remarkably consistent with the third, with very little variation in flavor, appearance, or aroma. Very pleasant!

The wrap up
At this point, I can't tell you whether this is a 20-steeping variety of pu or a 6-steeping type, but we'll have to try it later, if I can get back to this . I'll update later, if I'm even able to complete this tasting. It's a date night, you see, which might mean that tea tasting takes a backseat to even more interesting pursuits.

Typically, I don't like white teas, because the subtlety of their flavor is just lost on my barbaric palate. I like my teas to be opinionated, and I like to taste them, not infer their flavor. Happily, a white tea that has been transmuted into a pu-erh has a lovely balance between subtlety and punchiness, which I find completely appealing. I would love to get my hands on a full cake of this stuff and see how it ages for a couple years, and compare the experience. But as a self-drinker, one which you can drink immediately without waiting, I can strongly recommend this, because it lacks that harshness and bitterness one often finds in a young, green pu-erh. Strikes a lovely balance, and I'm quite excited to have found it.

I thank Bílý Jeřáb for the opportunity to taste this tea! It's perfect for a beastly, cold day in Chicago.