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!


Kate said...

Yes, I DO have a bookmark! So there.

And no, Stravinsky does NOT fit the mood. I'd go with Grieg.

--your baby sister

Veri-Tea said...

I love reading your reviews Stephen. Good to know I'm not the only person stubbornly trying to bend my baby to my tea drinking will. :)

Unknown said...

Kate, as always, your comments add immeasurably to the advancement of U.S. tea culture, and for this, I am terribly grateful.

Veri-Tea: Thank you! It feels good to be writing about tea again, after a bit of a hiatus. And, yes, sitting down for the full gongfu tea treatment is quite challenging with little ones about. Especially Her Pinkness, who is now old enough to crawl up onto the table and throw everything she can reach onto the floor. The picture is a bit out of date (and she's only gotten cuter), but I thought it summed up her mischievous nature.