Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Tea Horse, Black Keemun Mao Feng

Review of Black Keemun Mao Feng, provided by Tea Horse in the UK.

Welcome, tea appreciators and connoisseurs! Today I bring you a black Keemun Mao Feng, which has been provided to me by my friends at the UK outfit, Tea Horse. I'd like to break down the terms used in the title of this bag of leaves and see what we can understand before we get any hot water boiling. And I have a little story for you, which will give you an idea of the origins of this peculiar, exciting tea.

But before we get started on the tea, a big thought from the God himself, conveyed to us by the prophet Isaiah.

"For He says, 'Order on order, order on order, Line on line, line on line, A little here, a little there.'" --Isaiah 28:10

This verse is brought to remembrance because I was thinking about my readership and the type of knowledge it takes to properly understand the in-voice of a tea blog. And furthermore, how much yet I have to learn. I have something like 80 official followers through the Google doodad, and I don't know how many others who stop by because they read a blurb elsewhere or through a search on "10 ways tea caffeine is better than coffee caffeine," (Ha! Linkbait) and I'm sure that means I have 80 people who know far more than I do about tea who nevertheless have decided to follow The 39 Steeps blog.

So God  gives some good advice about attaining wisdom:

Order on order
Order on order
Line on line,
Line on line 
A little here
A little there

We can't expect to learn all this stuff in a day, a month, or even a decade. Anything worth attaining to is rich enough to drill down deeply into, a mine that will take a lifetime of learning to understand. That being said, you can learn about 80% of what you need to be an "expert," or at least fairly conversant, in a subject in a shockingly short amount of time. That means, take heart ye who are starting to learn about tea, because it doesn't take a long time to get the basics, though it will provide you with a lifetime to find that elusive 20% that only will come to you with much dedication and study.

Order on order, line on line, here a little, there a little. That's a good way to learn about today's tea.

Tea Horse

{National Geographic,
The Tea Horse Road }
First off: "Tea Horse." Of course, it's a company name, right? But behind that little moniker is a reference to the ancient tea route, which was known as the Tea Horse Road, or the Southern Silk Road. Please don't hate me if I use a handy Wikipedia entry to give an overview.

The Tea Horse Road or chamadao (simplified Chinese: 茶马道; traditional Chinese: 茶馬道), now generally referred to as the Ancient Tea Horse Road or chama gudao (simplified Chinese: 茶马古道; traditional Chinese: 茶馬古道) was a network of mule caravan paths winding through the mountains of Yunnan Province in Southwest China. It is also sometimes referred to as the Southern Silk Road. From around a thousand years ago, the Ancient Tea Route was a trade link from Yunnan, one of the first tea-producing regions: to Bengal and India via Burma; to Tibet; and to central China via Sichuan Province. In addition to tea, the mule caravans carried salt. Both people and horses carried heavy loads, the tea porters sometimes carrying over 60–90 kg, which was often more than their own body weight in tea.

It is believed that it was through this trading network that tea (typically tea bricks) first spread across China and Asia from its origins in Pu'er county, near Simao Prefecture in Yunnan.

The route earned the name Tea-Horse Road because of the common trade of Tibetan ponies for Chinese tea, a practice dating back at least to the Song dynasty, when the sturdy horses were important for China to fight warring nomads in the north.

You can learn more by clicking that link above and reading it all, and then going to source materials to really delve into the subject. The Tea Horse Road opened trading in an enormous geographic space, allowing cultures to get to know one another through mercantile enterprise. And even the tea was sometimes affected by the trade. Russian caravan tea, a common style sold everywhere nowadays, came from the practice of the traders making smoky fires on their long trips, sometimes adding smoky fragrance to the tea by the time it arrived in the trading centers of distant Russia. Green teas so often drunk in China might not make it the extreme distances, so black tea was developed to help get this wonderful leaf changed-but-intact to far shores.

As you see, even in the shorthand of a tea company's title, it's line upon line, here a little, there a little. Just keep reading, tasting, and learning, and you're on your way.

Black Tea

As I mentioned before, black tea was not typically drunk much in China. Most of the great Tribute Teas, or the 10 Famous Chinese Teas, were not black teas, which is the type of tea we are most familiar with in the West. The lists for the 10 Famous Teas changes depending upon who is making the list, but here's a pretty handy one for reference, also by the dreaded and much-maligned Wikipedia.

Translated English nameChinesePronunciationPlace of originTypeOccurrences
1Dragon Well西湖龙井Xi Hu Long JingHangzhouZhejiangGreen tea20
2Spring Snail洞庭碧螺春Dong Ting Bi Luo ChunSuzhouJiangsuGreen tea20
3Iron Goddess安溪铁观音An xi Tiě Guān YīnAnxiFujianOolong tea18
4Yellow Mountain Fur Peak黄山毛峰Huáng shān Máo FēngHuang ShanAnhuiGreen tea17
5Mount Jun Silver Needle君山银针Jun shan Yin ZhenYueyangHunanYellow tea14
6Qi Men Red祁门红茶Qi Men Hong ChaQimenAnhuiBlack tea12
7Big Red Robe武夷大紅袍Wu Yi Dà Hóng PáoWuyi MountainsFujianOolong tea11
8Melon Seed六安瓜片Liu ān Guā PiànLu'anAnhuiGreen tea11
9White Fur Silver Needle白毫银针Bái Háo Yín ZhēnFudingFujianWhite tea10
10Pu-erh tea云南普洱Yunnan Pǔ'ěr CháSimaoYunnanPost-fermented tea10

If you want to have a great tea adventure, by all means look up these teas and give them a try. Of course, you won't get the true "Imperial"-grade teas, which stay in China and only get drunk by the friends of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo. But what we get is good enough for barbarian taste buds, and we can still get an extraordinarily lovely cup anyway. Look at the list above: four greens, two oolongs, a yellow, a white, and a puerh. Oh, and a black. One black tea out of 10 Famous Chinese teas. So when a Chinese tea is designated as a BlacikTea, you know they meant to do that, and quite possibly for foreign consumption, because our tastes are fitted quite nicely for that type of tea. But because it was also designated as one of the Ten Great Teas of China, fit for the emperor, it means this tea can be a rare and refined treat.

Please notice, Chinese generally refer to what we call black tea as red tea. This sometimes causes some confusion with Western purchasers, who also see on the shelves something called, red tea, which is actually a red-colored infusion from the honeybush tree, an entirely different kettle of fish.

Mao Feng

Originally I had thought that mao feng was a reference to the practice of plucking only the freshest tea leaves at the tip of the stem, with a bud and two leaves. Where did I get this completely erroneous idea? Why, Wikipedia, of course. (See? Line upon line, here a little, there a little.) My more knowledgeable tea friends said it is more about the shape of the leaves: long and twisty, hand-plucked, carefully treated. Fur peak is the literal meaning, and it is a production style for this tea that can be steeped longer with less leaf, providing a smooth tea with a unique taste palate.


Ah, keemun, or quimen, or qimen, or ;. Remember, this is an English transliteration from a Chinese term, and spellynges can vary. There's probably no right way to spell it, but we go with Keemun for simplicity. Just for kicks, I looked up "Qimen, Huangshan, Anhui, China" in Google Earth, and I found what I was looking for. Qimen, or Keemun, is a tea named after the place it was originally developed.

{ Qimen, Huangshan, Anhui, China }
While I could give you pictures of Qimen, I'll let your Google do the walking instead. Here, I'll simply point out that this region is obviously mountainous, with villages up on peaks, and much green of tea visible from space by Google's cameras. Many tea-growing regions give much of their local economy up to the growing of this scarce resource, and sometimes their economies can suffer when there is a drought or a dip in tea prices. This is not unlike the results of the Potato Famine in Ireland (or even the current state of the city of Detroit), when a location given over to a single crop or product may suffer out of proportion to its potential because they don't have enough of a backup plan if something goes wrong with their production or distribution of what it is they're selling.

A Just-So Story: "How Keemun Tea Came To Be"

nce upon a time, when the world was yet young, and the dew of creation still hung wet upon the glistering leaves; when Brother Raven, and Father Owl, and Sister Otter were still discovering their places in the grand scheme of Nature; and Oscar Wilde was a second-year student at Oxford, and Nikola Tesla began his studies, and Edgar Rice Burroughs was born-- that is to say, 1875-- there was in China a humble bureaucrat of the name Yu Ganchen.

Ganchen grew up in a tea-growing family, as were all the families in his neighborhood in Anhui; but he was known for his frequent bumbles and fumbles. He (and those unfortunate enough to have spent an afternoon picking up after his messes) felt he could not quite fit in as a tea grower like his father and his father before him, so he bent himself upon being the under-prefect of some important-seeming functionary in the depths of the highly organized and restrictive Confucian world of his day. There were plenty of jobs for people who could read and write and shuffle papers about with the appearance of great efficiency. What could go wrong?

Well, unfortunate Ganchen was as marvelous an undersecretary for the assistant prefect of the council for undersecretary affairs (or whatever it was, and don't quote me on that), as he was as a tea grower: that is to say, an utter and categorical failure. While beset by the misfortunes and the many unpleasantnesses that arrive upon the doorstep of any failed bureaucrat in no matter what country or time, he remembered what his Papa had told him: "If all else fails, son of my heart, come back home and make tea."

Well, for lack of anything else to do, he returned, head hanging, tail between his legs, and started making tea. This quickly palled on him, as a humble tea farm did not match the marble floors and inlaid wood of the undersecretary's offices, and he missed the scritch-scritch-scritch of sharply pointed quills writing important diktats to the under-under-undersecretaries to carry out. Alas! Never again would poor Ganchen drink tea in the palace's garden-- so many teas, and so different from the Anhui greens with which he was so familiar-- with his superiors, hoping against hope for someone to die so he could take their place in the great ladder of success that might allow him to return home with a peacock-feather fan and a lovely wife from, perhaps, a family slightly above their own in social status.

Alas, poor Ganchen! In his despair, he took the crop of the day's tea leaves, which he abhorred the very look of-- they stared at him so, saying, "Failure, failure, failure"-- and he tossed them into the corner of his room, refusing to even return their disapproving glares. He sat at his desk, dreaming that he was again surrounded by fragrant cherry trees and the lovely sound of scritch-scritching of such important things.

Sleep came upon Ganchei, as it does to all breathing things. The next morning-- Despair! Failure! He had forgotten entirely to take his day's tea-- which he had taken hours to pluck-- and get them out for proper drying. As we said earlier, Anhui province was famous for its green teas, and a wasted day in growing season was no small thing. Surely, his fathers glower would say-without-saying, "My son, the failure at tea, then the failure at being a useless undersecretary of dung disposal, and now a failure at tea all over again. Oh, Emperor of Heaven, why could I not have had a lovely daughter, even if I'd have to sell all I had to marry her off with a proper dowry? Better than this lout."

Of course, Ganchei's father had thought no such thing, for it was he who had kindly reminded his son that he always had a home, and a work, to return to if for some reason a career in the capitol did not pan out has he had been hoping. But a young man, in the grip of his shame, might be forgiven for projecting such thoughts on a kindly and longsuffering man who wished for nothing but the joy of each of his children, whom he loved more than his own life.

In despair, Ganchei ambled over to the ruined leaves. Instead of the brilliant, rich green, they were now a dull, rumpled brown. "My father will kill me. Or, worse yet, cast me out of the household where I shall have to make a living in the wild world, selling my hair and internal organs to survive." He hadn't thought that latter out as well as he could, which was the mind-set that perhaps might have contributed to his failure as assistant to the undersecretary.

As a sort of last supper, before he would go to his father and bare his failures and the inevitable shame, he pulled out his best teaware-- the imported caledon from far-off Korea, and the tea pot with the slight chip in the pour-- and decided to drink to the dregs this testament to his inadequacies.

"Keemun tea, brought to you by Yu Ganchen, the abysmal." He used his most exquisite gongfu preparations to create this muck which marked the end of yet another unprofitable venture. "Bottoms up, you son of a whore!" he said to himself, as he sipped the first steeping.

Stop. Full stop. Instead of a blasted ruin of some fairly decent tea, he had instead accidentally invented something new. This was not the famed Anhui tea that his entire region centered its economy upon from time out of mind. This was SOMETHING NEW. Rich, with black orchid notes, and something like chocolate (of which he knew nothing), and . . . well, flavors-- dozens and dozens of flavors-- he had never even imagined, even while tasting the great teas while he was working as a minor functionary in a large organization.

SOMETHING NEW. Yes, he, Yu Ganchen, had by accident stumbled upon something new. Well, once is an accident, and twice is a trend. He went out again into his father's fields, picking the most tender and perfect of the leaf tips from the plants, until he had a respectable basket, and he retired to his chambers, claiming a splitting headache. With rolling eyes, the other workers welcomed his departure, so they could get down to work without his constant yammering about undersecretaries this, and jade palaces that, and lovely ladies in costly silk that none of them would ever set eyes upon.

Again, tossing the bag into the corner of his room, he stared at the beautiful calligraphy for patience on his wall, a gift from his departed mother. He made a small offering to his household gods: cheeky, of course, but he took some of yesterday's-- dare he say it?-- exquisite tea and placed it upon the small bowl in his worship nook. Gods from near and far, is this the answer I have long sought? Might it be that you have delivered the humble Ganchen, surname Yu, into something new and wonderful? May it be so. And with that, he tossed a pinch of incense into a tiny fire and prepared for bed.

The next morning: Yes! A bag of leaves that looked and smelled precisely as they had before. He made himself another flight of gongfu, allowing the tea to be steeped through its various voices three, four, five times. This was no mere accident, but a turn of fortune for a most unfortunate son of Yu. Perhaps the goddess of Fortune had finally smiled upon poor Ganchen, allowing this object of scorn and pity to rise.

In his excitement, he broke not one, but two of his private stash of teaware; but no matter. He gathered his things and hurried to his father's rooms. He shouted, he yelled, he howled for the elders of the village to join them. They grumbled that this fool of a failed undersecretary was surely mad, and from bad stock, and would only bring shame upon his family evermore.

Ignoring the muttering, Ganchen prepared his tea. He pulled out the ruined leaves and laid them out in a ceramic bowl for them to view while he prepared the hot water. They glowered and muttered about the ruination of perfectly good leaves, but silenced as the true gongfu ceremony began, which demanded their utmost good manners, even if the ceremony was invoked by such a blockhead by Ganchen, of the family Yu, which had always been respectable until this lunatic showed up.

His father remained carefully silent throughout, which bothered Ganchen immensely. Is father agreeing with the mutters, or does he have deeper thoughts in his mind? Would it matter? Maybe, did I imagine this in my fever madness, and now I shall be finally locked up into a cage of madness or sold off to another village as a shameful clown to be mocked at the mercy of every ruffian who happened by? (And, of course, none of these things would happen, but perhaps we can forgive a young man whose failures had marked his heart and broken it in so many pieces, it would take many years to heal, if it healed it at all.)

Yu Ganchen set out the tea table, pouring boiling water over all the tea implements. He pulled out his best teapot and heated it, and then dropped an appropriate amount of the hideous, brown leaf into the teapot to begin to awaken and breathe. A rich fragrance escaped the pot, and his father closed his eyes. Carefully not watching any of the elders or his father, he poured out the first steeping into the carefully heated cups and, with a tremble and a drip and some splashing, I must confess, filled the cups from left to right and back from right to left. With hands inured to the heat of tea ceremony, he handed each cup carefully to each guest, honoring his father with the last cup.

Ganchen sat back on his heels, with an external mien as calm and smooth as ice. He waited. Each man took his sip, and even the ancient village matron, whose opinion mattered as much or even more than all of the other men combined. Ganchen set about the second steeping. This is where a tea can be made or broken, as everyone knows. The tea has awakened, and now it will show what it's made of. He could hardly breathe has he reached down inside and froze his feelings into a block, allowing him to make the second pour. With no hesitation and the appearance of complete unconcern, he poured.

Cocoa-- which was unfamiliar to him as the scent of copier paper-- overtook his senses, as well as fruits familiar and not, and rich mulchy smells that reminded him of rich beers or freshly overtuned earth. This was no longer the famous Anhui green tea, but--

He finally looked up and saw his astonishment mirrored in the carefully controlled responses of his village's elders. He noticed a twitch in his father's face, which only those who knew them well-- as all did at this table-- that this is what constituted a delighted smile, an epiphany, a bright joy working its way past his near-total control of himself. Ancient Hu, the matron of the village, broke protocol and poured herself the leftover pour from his pot, which he had been preparing to pour over the clay good-luck fish he kept on his table for offerings. The fish pet would get no more tea this day, as once loosed by Ancient Hu, each of the ancients broke out of their accustomed silence and began demanding to know where Ganchen had found such a delightful and surprising tea.

"Is it from Sichuan province?"
"A new kind of puerh?"
"Did this come from the palace?"
"Why did you keep this secret until now?"
"How could you afford such a treasure?"

Father Yu kept his silence.

After a time, and two times, and a measure of time, he looked his son in the eyes over his cooling cup and said, "Son of my heart, what have you discovered? From whence come these leaves, which sing in my heart as no tea has done in my long life?"

Suddenly, Ganchen found pouring out of him the story of his exasperation, his sadness, and the disgusted toss of his day's teas into an untended corner of his room. He described how he forgot them entirely and did not get his day's leaves properly treated for sale. He poured out his heart's shame that he had failed his family, his village, and mostly his father by wasting a perfectly good crop of tea and a day's labor.

Yu Ganchen then described how he had prepared this ruin of a tea as a way of drinking his shame to its dregs, only to find that he had, somehow, by the kindness of the goddess of mercy herself, discovered something new: a black tea that none had ever tasted before. A new thing in a world where new things were usually greeted with fear and suspicion, as they typically upset the good balance of the lives of a thousand generations.

Delighted, the village elders and tea masters set about recreating Yu Ganchen's discovery, and they improved upon some details, adding some steps, removing some wasted motion, and coming up with a method by which they could oxidize the famous Anhui teas and create, well, Keemun teas, now named after the tiny village in which it was developed. Before long, people up and down the Great Tea Horse Road were clamoring for this new tea, and it was sent as a tribute to the Emperor himself. And because this tea was already black, it would not wither and fade on a sea voyage, and Queen Victoria herself tasted this wonderful tea, which eventually became the basis for the English Breakfast tea we enjoy to this day. The village of Keemun became prosperous and happy, with more orders for tea than they could even fulfill. This failure of a fool turned out to be a good luck charm of his own.

All because of a lousy bureaucrat who followed his father's advice and went back to what he had learned as a boy on his Daddy's loving, longsuffering knee.

Little by little, line upon line, bit by bit, a little here, a little there, and eventually we'll find some wisdom that might just change ourselves, our hopes, and even the lives around us. Bravo to opportunities that fail, because they may just open the door to good things we would never have imagined on our own.

{This lady wanted some decent tea.
And she got it. }

the tea

I think my description of the experience of this tea is buried in the story above, so I won't belabor it. It's rich, it's complex, and it's a bit surprising. Take care not to oversteep it, or the bitterness comes out; but experiment with various lengths of steeping and amount of tea, and you'll find something rich and wonderful, which needs no sugar nor milk to cover up the basic flavors. Learn to put up with a touch of bitterness, as it is one of the five basic flavors God has gifted us with, and try this stuff on your own. Then, little by little, line upon line, bit by bit, here a little, there a little, you'll learn more about where this tea comes from, why we drink it, and maybe more about yourself as you learn to take time to indulge your senses.

Thank you, Tea Horse, for your delightful tea. I can't wait to taste more!