Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tasting Notes: Menghai XX93 2006 cooked pu-erh

I'm outside on a very rainy-cloudy day in Illinois, on my balcony, drinking something to combat the damp: a 2006 cooked pu-erh from the Menghai Factory. This tea is a gift from the Tea Dork, or Tea Goober, who recently sold me a highly useful tea table and teapot, as well as some other items. Though the gift of tea was given to me awhile back, I believe TD indicated this came from Yunnan Sourcing. I've had a number of their pu-erhs in the past, and they are a favorite among those who drink this type of tea.

Because the tea has been cooked, I thought it best to allow the tea a couple of quick, 10-second rinses before I would drink. During the rinses, the first whiffs of the tea rise up out of the pot after I decant. These are highly fragrant leaves, fruity and complex. The bing is so tightly compressed that I only managed to break the piece I was given into a couple chunks and some powder. It is beyond my skill to separate out every leaf, as I often do with younger, uncooked pu-erhs, so it'll take awhile for this tea to open up. The trick with pu is to separate as much as possible the leaves, without breaking them into pieces, which creates a more bitter cup.

Steeping 1: 15 sec, wife stole it
My lovely wife was going out the door and stole the first steeping of this tea as she left. I did manage to get one small cup, which seemed quite light in flavor, even though heavy and black in color. But that's about all I could get out of it. Suzanne, enjoy the rest on your way to karate!

Steeping 2: 20sec, on the balcony
With great labor, I moved everything out to the balcony from my bunker tea laboratory, so I could enjoy the gray, moist weather. We'll see how long this lasts until the rain drives me in. The tea: Almost a coffee black, but still rather light in flavor. There are high notes of fruit and chocolate, a slightly hollow middle, and a rather bitter undertow that should fade with further steepings. I am refusing to be moved by the plaintive cries of the baby, who is supposed to be taking her nap right now.

Steeping 3: 30s, still on the balcony
Now joined by neighbors and their dog, my balcony is not quite as private as before. But happily, I can be sure no one cares about what I'm writing about tea, so I am in no danger of someone scooping me. By this third steeping, the tea still seems weak in its mouthfeel, eluding my grasp. The very black leaves have not really begun unfurling yet, and they have a lovely fragrance that I'm hoping to taste at some point in the liquor itself. My bare feet feel cold on the damp wood of the balcony. Because I'm anxious to get to the fifth steeping and beyond, I am going to drop this steeping into a larger pitcher for later, or for the plants or something. I want to get to the good stuff, but it seems that might be a while.

Steeping 4: 30s, Dvorjak's Slavonic Dances
"What does Dvorjak have to do with pu-erh tea?" you might ask. Well, nothing, except that I like both of them, and I happen to be enjoying them at the same time. Finally, the pu-erh is starting to get its legs. There's an almost cherry wood sense to the cup now, and a slight roseate glow about the edges of the tea in the pot.

Well, that's what you came here for, right? Writing and reading about tea is not just documentation of some liquid that is only valuable when making purchasing decisions. It's about culture, and about people, and what makes us tick.

I'm a bit of a melancholic. (My friends and family would ask, "A bit?!") Drinking tea is, for me, something of an ameliorative, a tonic that helps me find a moment of peace and solace. So I drink the good stuff-- as good as I can get my hands on, anyway, on the basic premise that what is good for my soul is good for my life; and that a healthy, prosperous soul is the foundation for a healthy, prosperous life.

And tea helps me with this, by giving silence an anchor in my noisy life, somewhere to hang its hat and stay awhile, so I can gather myself together. And, oddly enough, the music playing in the background while I write augments the silence and grace of this moment, given to me to enjoy. These are the moments in which I come to full stop and say, "This is the day that the Lord has made; I will [I make a conscious choice] rejoice and be glad in it." Odd, how a cup of brown leaf juice helps me come to that conclusion.

Steeping 5: 35s, baby still complaining
Just as the tea starts getting good, I think I've run out of time, because of the angelic but noisy baby upstairs. The tea has taken on a richness in flavor that matches the depth of the hue. The aroma is delicate, nevertheless; surprising in a brew so dark. In the aftertaste, there is a delicately woodsy, floral sense that makes drinking this outdoors quite appropriate. I'd have to say, if I were not rather used to drinking pu-erh, I would find this tea a challenge, because it is so unlike other, more commonly drunk teas. The fermentation transforms the flavor so profoundly, it seems an entirely different class of drink altogether.

Steeping 6: 60s, baby still quiet, Stravinsky inappropriate
I have finally bent the baby's will to my all, and she is quiet. I am listening to Pandora and fast-forwarded through Stravinsky's Petrushka, because it just was not working with the quiet but uplifted feeling I am trying to cultivate this midmorning. Switching to my "Stormy Weather" station, hoping to placate the weather and keep the rain off. The cup is now transparent to the bottom of the crystal pitcher I decanted it into. I feel like I'm finally tasting the pu-erh itself for the first time: cherry notes, something like a cedar woodiness, and a light quality I did not expect. For a pu-erh, this is surprisingly delicate (particularly in contrast to the 2010 Makaibari Estate Darjeeling I've been enjoying lately, which has a kick like a mule if it's not handled with the deftness of a Swiss watchmaker-- though why a Swiss watchmaker would be handling a mule is a puzzle I'll leave for you to unravel).

Steeping 7: baby awake, must attend.

Steeping 8, 9, 10...
On into the evening, the tea kept going, revealing more of itself to me. I went to bed and put the tea into a bag, into the refrigerator, so I could continue on into the next day.

Steeping 11: staying home from church
Today the baby is ill, drippy and crusty (blech), and so I am staying home to keep her happy while wife and son go to worship. And hopefully learn something. I shall learn patience, it appears. I ran a quick rinse over the leaves to wake them up and warm the pot, and then commenced with a longer steep, about three minutes. Though the mouthfeel is becoming rather too light, and the flavor is fainter, the overall delicacy from this tea remains quite similar to the previous steepings.

Steeping 12: onward and upward
Bright, sunny day, though a bit humid for my taste. Drinking hot tea makes me feel a bit overheated, but I don't really care, and I drink it anyway. Baby Charis (pictured above in the image, Not Still Life) is wandering around, being adorable while keeping me on the move, playing the game, "Throw Everything on the Floor." Hoping to keep Yixing teapot in one piece. This steeping is 6 minutes, trying to bring out a bit more kick while still enjoying the delicacy of the tea. The cup has a pinkish hue, with very little aroma. Though the taste of the tea is still able to be discerned, I believe I'm ready to move on from this pu-erh to something a bit more substantial.

Thank you, TG and Yunnan Sourcing, for a most enjoyable tea. And to my readers: I know this blog post took on the form of a series of snapshots, as I attempted to drink the tea within the constraints of my busy life. But in real life, grabbing these moments when we can is (for me) essential, and it's enjoyable to let you in on the life behind the tea, messy though it may be.

Cheers, and thank you for reading!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Tasting Notes: Makaibari Estate 1st-Flush Darjeeling 2010

There was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very, very good; but when she was bad, she was horrid.

Behold the little Infanta Margarita at the center of Velázquez's masterpiece, Las Meninas. There's the painter himself, behind and to the left, rendering the scene that is viewed as the pinnacle of his work. The Infanta has seven attendants, plus a portrait painter, plus a dog, to keep her mildly amused. Her royal parents are watching the scene (you can see them in the mirror behind Velázquez), to ensure that he paints their little darling in the best light possible. Well, Sr. Velázquez managed to keep his position with his patron, even though you can just see the petulance seething under those little blond locks. Velázquez subtly leads us to understand that Her Cuteness can be quite the terror, and I'm certain this pampered princess would have remained so until well into adulthood. Delightful when you can catch her in the right mood, but watch out if she feels cross! Notice, there's not a smile in the room, and the attendants share a distinct tension as they await the next tempest royale. I feel for her future husband.

I am in love with 1st-flush Darjeelings, having drunk gallons of the stuff. But in general, I find this tea to be as touchy as old cats and dying empires, which, Mark Helprin assures us in Soldier of the Great War, "viciously insist upon decorum." Anything more than the lightest touch, and you end up with a brew that is harsh, bitter, and angry; but with gentleness and proper handling, as yielding and refreshing as a Spring meadow.

Arbor Teas sent me an enjoyable though rather temperamental 1st-flush Darjeeling from the Makaibari Estate, which I am sampling today. I've gone through several different iterations to get the tea just right, and I know that once I hit it, it'll be fireworks. By the third steeping, I've managed to get quite a delightful brew, though I'm certain the best is ahead. Just a bit more patience, and this should be very, very good indeed.

Not to be deterred, I shall try a fourth time and take notes as I go.

1 tsp per cup boiling water, allowed to cool to maybe around 88C to 92C. The reason for this is that, as a greenish 1st-flush, I want to minimize bitterness. I'll steep for 2:30. Again, the imperative here is to avoid the bitterness I experienced the first time out of the gate, when I first received the tea a couple days ago. Considering water: I use regular tap water, but which I have placed in a receptacle containing plenty of Japanese "white" charcoal for a day or so. I find the charcoal (which can be purchased online) eliminates the chlorine flavor in Chicago water, as well as adding a bit of body to the mouthfeel, which really rounds out the tea in a way that distilled or heavily filtered water does not. After steeping the tea, I decant and allow the tea to rest for maybe 3 to 5 minutes. This allows a bit further oxidation of the tea in the pot before I drink from it, thus allowing me to get at some of the more complex notes that are absent without oxidation. I used to notice that the second cup of every pot was much better than the first; so I just decided, why not just let the pot set and skip the less-flavorful first cup altogether?

The dry leaves are brightly aromatic, with a color ranging from pale green to black. My 18-month-old baby, Charis, is complaining now that I've taken away the tea jar from her, where she was breathing deeply to enjoy the smell. Catching the aroma is an important part of the tea-drinking experience, and I hope my readers know enough to stick their nose in the bag and get a good whiff. There is often an interesting contrast between the nose of the tea and the flavor on the tongue, which broadens the experience. Charis found the nose to be quite charming, though hinting at a lack of structure in the middle register. We'll see if how her advice plays out. I found the aroma to be bright and sharp, quite floral and a bit dusty. Although the label does not indicate so, I would expect from the size of the leaves upon steeping that this would be FTGFOP1, with perhaps a 60% oxidation.

Rich, deep amber, like middle-grade maple syrup. The aroma matches that of the dry leaves quite closely. The wet leaves, though, have taken on a completely different character, like that of a grape arbor. DO YOURSELF A FAVOR and always smell the wet leaves, once they've been steeped. While the tongue can identify five flavors, the nose can perceive literally thousands, and the aroma of tea leaves is not to be missed.

The flavor: Now that I've succeeded getting in within the sweet spot of this tea, how to describe? Bright on the tongue, but without being overbearing. Some complexity, mostly in texture, but with a bright note of flavor in the middle palate with a honeylike sweetness and a deep berry note in the upper register. It's dry, like a white wine; and the taste lingers on the tongue for quite a long time, slowly developing to a woodier, darker flavor as it rests on the palate and in the throat.

This is an excellent example of a highgrown Darjeeling. It's bright, enjoyable, and treated correctly can produce a light but memorable cup. But people with little experience with drinking Darjeelings must be warned that oversteeping this tea will kill it. If you find the tea to be bitter or difficult to drink, try a slightly lower steeping temperature, and go for a little less time than you ordinarily would. 2 to 2.5 minutes should be sufficient, and it will also allow multiple steepings of this quite lovely tea.

Arbor Teas, $12.50/3oz

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Tasting Notes: TeaGschwendner China Lung Ching 2009

TeaGschwendner is one of my favorite sources for Indian teas, particularly first- and second-flush Darjeelings. They have a large variety of flavored teas (which I shall not be reviewing on this site), as well as a number of unflavored greens and oolongs, though these are less likely to be found in local TeaGschwendner shops.

Though I bought the tea not too long ago, it was still the 2009 vintage, and so it's not at its very best (typically, one would want to buy a green tea as close to its picking as possible, which would mean anywhere between April and June; drinking a green a year after its picking is obviously going to dull the taste a bit and make it sparkle less).

The TeaGschwendner China Long Jing can be translated as "Dragon Well," hence the graphic I chose for today's post. I originally bought it for my lovely sister-in-law as a gift, along with several other teas, but she returned the Long Jing to me because she disliked it. Puzzlement! I had made Laura some Long Jing teas, and I knew she liked it. So what was the problem?

Donning my Charlie Chan robes (I would have used Sherlock Holmes, but since Charlie was "Chinese," I thought he would be funnier), I asked Sister-in-Law Number One what she was doing wrong. She was ignoring the directions on the packaging, and steeping at too high a temperature, and probably for too long. I write this as a teachable moment for all my readers: DO NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT STEEP CHINESE GREEN TEAS AT BOILING, unless you steep for only a matter of seconds (in the range of 5 to 10 seconds per steep). This results in a harsh, ugly concoction that will make you return someone's very thoughtful gift to them, which they will then enjoy immensely without you.

When properly steeped, the TeaGschwendner Long Jing is predictably lovely: a tawny-gold color with a lot of fragrance. There is a slight bitter tang to the flavor, but the bright, high notes and long finish are quite pleasant. This tea survived two steepings nicely, and perhaps more that I'll savor later.

How to describe? There are elusive berry notes in the center of my palate, but the high is a bright, acerbic cheerfulness that I enjoy immensely. There is a hint of something dark in the low palate that offsets the high notes, to give a beautifully balanced cup.

I wish I had been able to get this tea when it was freshly picked, because I'm certain it would have been quite extraordinary. Unfortunately, the TeaGschwendner people have their tea shipped from China to Germany, and from there to the U.S., where it's shelved until it's sold, which means it was a bit beyond its prime by the time I got to drink it. I look forward to tasting the 2010 variety, which I hope will live up to my expectations.

Thank you, TeaGschwendner, for being so consistent and careful with your tea offerings. I've learned so much from living near one of your very few shops, and I am grateful for your considerable addition to the U.S. tea culture.