Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tasting Notes: Bily Jerab Jingmai 2009 Sheng Pu-erh

Little by little and more by more, I'm learning about pu-erh, albeit at a glacial pace.

But learning tea is like that: slow, with much to learn, especially when crammed into the corners of a busy schedule. Modern life-- particularly suburban life, entrepreneurial life, and life with small children-- doesn't allow for much slow-and-easy meditation. As I write, my seven-year-old boy is playing with my intermittently but earsplittingly shrieking baby, which does not really help me get "centered," as the pop-psy people would say. Indeed, sometimes it feels miraculous if I can string two sentences together or follow any thought through to its completion. At least, until they go to bed, when I'm too tired to think anyway.

So I shall write these notes briefly, if only because it's certain I'll be interrupted before I can finish my post, if I write with amount of painstaking care I usually take.

Today I am drinking some pu-erh from my friends at Bily Jerab, whose complex circumflexes I shall have to forego when typing. They can be reached at info@bily-jerab.cz, and they're delightful as a vibrant part of the Czech tea culture, which you can read more about here.

The folks at BJ had sent me a package with a variety of young, sheng pu-erhs. I was rather hesitant at first, because I'd been reading how young pu can be extraordinarily harsh and difficult to drink. But I've found, with a light touch, that a very delicate and complex tea tasting can result in a time well spent.

Now, young pu-erhs have a lot more in common, in my tender experience, than they differ. I believe the process of aging a green pu-erh is that which really drives the different pu into their wide variations. But I find the freshly green pu-erhs are quite similar to my palate, and quite enjoyable.

This particular Jingmai 2009 has a very light start, with a pale golden liquor and an aroma and flavor of fresh hay, and very little bitterness.

The second steeping opens up with a bit more bitterness, which I don't really mind in this case. Light and airy, mildly astringent, with an almost metallic aftertaste that I find much more enjoyable than the wording suggests. A deeper amber color accompanies the aroma, which rides closely to the flavor experienced in the mouth (which is not by any means always the case).

The third steeping is a rich tawny color, with a very light, dry flavor, which makes me think of some white wines that are strong on "dry" and light on "fruity." For this tea, the trick is pulling out enough of the flavor without ratcheting up the bitterness. It's something of a tightrope, and it's difficult to hit it right at it's sweet spot with every steeping. As the tea sits in the fairness pitcher awhile, it mellows and sweetens.

As I wait for the fourth steeping, I'll stop a moment and think about these young, green pu-erhs. Unlike my expectations, they can be quite mellow, but that means keeping the steepings short, and not going overboard in the amount of leaf in the pot. A lighter cup might be interpreted as a weak cup in a black tea, but with pu-erh, the sharp brightness of the tea allows a fairly balanced cup. I use a purple-clay Yixing pot for my green pu-erhs, which provides a very happy experience. It's atypical for me to be able to sit down and have a proper tea, unbroken by interruptions, but when I can get one, it's something I look forward to. (I've been interrupted countless times during the writing of this post, so please pardon its fractious disorganization.)

The fourth steeping. At first blush, the tawny and transparent liquor has a herblike airiness, which reminds me of dry Illinois prairie in Summer. Which, coincidentally, I am surrounded by in my far-Western suburb of Chicago. There's a brassiness to the flavor in the very high notes, which is in contrast to the rich middle and the dry low notes.

As a quick note: The young, green pu-erhs I've been tasting via Bily Jerab do not have the richness and complexity of an aged pu-ehrs. In this case, the tea keeps the same flavor with only slight development as the tea goes, although it starts to lose its strength and power around the sixth or so steeping. At a certain point, I'll be steeping the tea for 20 or 30 minutes to get the last of the flavor from the leaves, before I compost them.

Well, I'm forced to stop my review, because a certain little princess is demanding all the attention she can muster. Please pardon the abbreviated form and the lack of deep rumination. I'd like to offer more, but a baby begging to be picked up just doesn't seem to care about the readership of The 39 Steeps. Well, she'll go to college someday, I suppose, so I'll be able to complete a thought then.

Until that time, thank you all for reading!

Later steepings revealed a carmel-corn aroma and taste that was knockout delicious. Even though the mouthfeel at this point was becoming quite thin, the awakening of the new flavor was worth the wait. Beautiful end to a series of steeps.


Kate said...

Far west suburbs? You are practically in Wisconsin. Geez.

I'm enjoying the podcast. Heehee. Excellent.

Debbie said...

Screaming babies, yes, been there.;-)

Thanks for your efforts, Steven. Your blog entries are always interesting.

Unknown said...

Debbie, thank you so much for reading. I've been recovering from a bit of an illness for a while, and it's good to start to own my life again, and in particular, writing about tea. I'm glad you enjoyed. the article. I hope you read about the Czech tea culture, which I found fascinating.

And Kate: Isn't Imen Shan great? I love her, and I can't wait to speak with her again. If I had a couple hundred bucks burning away in my pocket, I'd call her right now and buy a big packet of her tea.