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.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Tasting Notes: Green Hill Tea: OC Royal Pu-erh


I love tea, even though it's been a while since I felt up to writing about it. But the full moon is out, and the forces of darkness are resurrecting The 39 Steeps blog, dragging it from its shallow grave to shamble among the living again. Brainssssssss.

Or something like that. Really, I'd like to just talk a bit about Green Hill Tea's OC Royal Pu-erh.

The zombie imagery suggested itself to me by way of drinking this powerful, deeply black pu-erh, which I can feel pulsing through my nervous system. And with my wicked mood this morning, it seems even more appropriate. Brainssssssss.

The Royal Pu-erh looks like a typical yellow-tippy Yunnan tea, coming in loose-leaf rather than in compacted form. It's a shu pu-erh, from all appearances, meaning it was processed to hasten its appearance of aging.

Now, when this process was invented, it was viewed by aficionados as a way of cheating the system-- of taking a tea and making it look older than it really is. People can't always wait around for a green pu-erh to age 30 years to drink it, and the market had exceeded demand. So clever manufacturers took the green pu and ran it through some sort of wet-heat process, whereby the tea was artifically made to darken and take on the appearance of a time-fermented tea. Quelle horreur! The real problem was that often this type of shu was passed off as an aged tea, when it was not. And these shu pu-erhs may not age as well as a properly prepared and cared-for green pu, thus making them a bit less valuable.

That being said, there's much to enjoy about a shu pu-erh, drunk on its own terms, without any pretension that it is something it is not. A shu-pu (a phrase you can pop out in your next business meeting, to wow the customers and make them think very highly of your intellect) can be very enjoyable and fun as a self-drinker, without any need for further aging.

Now to Green Hill Tea's OC Royal Pu-erh. This does not appear on their Web site, and hopefully they will begin to market it along with their other excellent offerings. (As a reminder, I love, love, love their lapsang souchong, which they also market under various names as bohea lapsang and so on. Easily the best lapsang I've ever encountered.)


I prepared the pu in my Yixing pu-erh pot, and gave it a 10-second rinse, then poured it over my Yixing and warmed up my cups and fairness pitcher. This way, everything was happily warmed up for the next step.

And I did it again. Typically, with shu pu-erh, I don't enjoy the first couple steepings because they taste more like what I suppose is the storage facility than the tea itself.

The first steeping was lackluster, though bracing in its effect on my nervous system. Dark mahogany in color, the liquor has a nicely earthy, mushroomy aroma, with a lightly tangy spice in the high notes.

Well, this steeping had to be made after an hour wait, so the tea was, again, rather lackluster. My life keeps interrupting my ability to sit down over a long tea session, and these gaps in the tea production obviously affect the next steeping.

The leaves in the pot smell precisely like the liquor, which is kind of surprising, because that is not typically the case. The pure black leaves have no begun unfurling yet (at least, not so I would notice), and the tea session is still in its infancy. The liquor is a nearly opaque black, with a reddish tint, still, when viewed in the clear pot. Now the tea takes on an astringency, a dryness, with a woody dampness that softens the impact of the astringency. So far, I'm not bowled over by the pu-erh, but I'm interested to see what the next steepings will do. I've read that pu-erh drinking doesn't even really get started until the fifth steeping.

The tea is staying fairly consistent: fairly light, woody, but the astringency has diminished noticeably.

I thought to lengthen the amount of steeping time, to make the tea have a bit more personality. The pu has taken on a lighter transparency, with the reddish tint more pronounced. Aroma is pronounced and there's a pleasing mouthfeel: full and satisfying. It's a nice, though rather light, pu. I was sparing in the water to give it a greater strength, but it still sits a bit too lightly on the palate. For future, I'll lengthen the steeping times a bit.

AND THAT'S ALL I CAN WRITE! Cramming writing into my schedule is so difficult at this time in my life, and this little blog post has been interrupted so many times, that I am frustrated about the experience. Bleh. Well, at least the tea is good! I feel a bit less zombielike, though my mood is still black as I would think the undead would experience, as they cannot enjoy tea.