26 February 2008

2007 Spring Chang Ning Mao Cha

This was a gift from Imen of Tea Habitat when I attended her Chinese New Year fête.

Chang Ling mao cha - dry

The medium-sized leaves show no huang pian (yellow bits) and a few hearty bud and flag combinations. When dry, the stuff smells like really fresh sheng pu'er: fertile and buttery. When wet, though, it smells somewhere between fresh sheng pu'er and Yunnan green tea. MarshalN has said as much about most of the raw materials from 2007: they have so many traits of green tea, calling them pu'er seems inappropriate or inadequate.

Chang Ling mao cha - infusion 2

What this greenness in raw pu'er means I can't say. There are a few possible explanations. First, it could just be a fluke of the 2007 crop. We can perhaps confirm that soon with the 2008 spring crop. Second, it could be a shift in processing methods aimed at making young pu'er more tasty and drinkable now, although this may be the case with the pu'er whose aroma and flavors approach those of oolong. Third, it could be that more Yunnan green tea was processed like pu'er and released into the market as such. I have no opinion that steers me toward any of these speculative explanations. However, from my own experience tasting in China in 2007, many--but not all--of the green pu'er products from larger factories had this green tea quality. Many from Haiwan and Six Famous Tea Mountain factories I recall in particular, but a few from Menghai Factory, Nanjian/Zhai Zi Po, and others, too. The mao cha I tasted on Nannuo and Youle mountains did not share this quality, but some the Youle and Manzhuan mao cha I tasted in Jinghong did.

Chang Ling mao cha - spent

Back to the tea at hand: the taste is light. The color is light. Aftertaste is there; it lingers in the mouth. "Green tea bitterness," the marker of "green tea pu'er," is not present in this tea, confusing any snap judgment regarding if this tea is really green tea instead of pu'er. Take green tea, pour boiling water over it, and it becomes vegetal and bitter. This mao cha brewed at boiling tastes light and sweet, buttery and biscuity. Thin, but not vegetal and not bitter. The leaves, paper thin and delicate, still smell mostly like pu'er.

Chang Ling mao cha - flags

As with most other pu'er teas...we'll see how it ends up in 10-15 years.

14 February 2008

Taiwan Wild-grown Oolong Cultivar White Tea?

This tea may not be exactly what the title says. When I received this tea in Taiwan from a friend, he said it was hand-picked from bushes found growing wild outside an oolong plantation. The tea was processed like white tea. Unrolled, unstriped, greenish brown and brittle, the leaves appear like they were dried and underwent no further processing. They're quite pretty, but they were loaded into the packaging as a tangled clump that conformed to the shape of the box. In the picture below, what I mean about the processing reveals itself.

Taiwan Wild Oolong - dry leaves

Because I know too little about this tea to brew it in an unglazed pot, I brewed it in my antique gaiwan. The dry leaves smell of nothing; the steam off the rinsed leaves carried aromas of raisins and carob. The flavor and color of the liquor were both very light. In fact, this tea emphasizes its texture more than anything else--light and gelatinous on the tongue, but sticky all the way down the throat. After I finished swallowing a cup, it felt as though it still was travelling down my throat.

Taiwan Wild Oolong - liquor

What flavor there was was carob, underlined by some yeasty or baked note and a hint of staleness. No matter how long I brewed it, the flavors were of consistent strength and never did they become bitter or sour.

The energy of the tea was soft, maybe a bit inactive. Easy to drink and eassy to brew, I enjoyed this tea Still, I wonder how much they would charge for this tea because of its wild, hand-crafted nature. It appears to be a production of the Wushing publishing group's tea brand, with similar imagery as I saw on their aged fo shou oolong and on productions by Huang Chan Fang.

Taiwan Wild Oolong - spent leaves

The packaging is below. So if someone who knows Chinese, e.g. Imen or MarshalN, can offer more clues as to what this tea really is, I'd appreciate it.

UPDATE [22 Feb 2008]: Translation provided by Imen:

"Name: Shen Nong Yi Ye Piao - Shen Nong one leaf drift

Shen Nong as most of people know is the first person to discover the medicinal property of tea as a detoxin. Why this name? Shen Nong was an herbalist at his time, tasting many plants each day. One day a leaf dropped into a pot of water he was boiling. He drank that tea and felt revitalized. The tea he drank neutralized 72 types of toxins. Since then he became "acquainted" with tea. This tea is processed with a simple roast drying method to commemorate Shen Nong and his discovery of tea in its original wild form. Simple and refreshing. Brew with large pot or boil in hot water to drink."

wild oolong box

wild oolong tags

07 February 2008

Anxi Ba Xian, Taiwan Forest Black Tea

Anxi Ba Xian Oolong (from Jing Tea Shop)
Ba Xian is a varietal of oolong not as commonly grown in Anxi as tie guan yin varietals. I know of ba xian dan cong, but i'm unaware if they are of the same plant. I should ask Sebastien (JTS) and Imen (Tea Habitat). My guess is no.

Anxi Ba Xian - dry leaf

Let me first say that while in the past year, I learned to appreciate green oolongs more than before, I don't prefer them, especially in cold weather. This machine-harvested, machine-rolled green oolong wasn't so bad. But I don't have the tongue to catch the difference between this ba xian and other green tie guan yin.

Anxi Ba Xian - liquor

It began vegetal, metallic, and heavy. Overwhelming had it not had a creamy texture and coating hui gan. [Side note: I think my water might have something to do with texture/hui gan. Lately, no tea suffers here.] The aftertaste lasted minutes; my next sips came before it completely faded. With infusions, florals began to overtake the vegetal flavors, but a metallic taste came as I swallowed. The third infusion offered the best balance, with little metal and just a little bitterness, floral enough to make me imagine chewing an iris.

Unfortunately, the bitter became worse in later infusions, perhaps a Ba Xian varietal feature, perhaps just the usual green oolong bitterness. Unroasted dan cong does this more regularly. Perhaps the grapefruit implied in the name of the varietal reveals itself in this bitterness?

Anxi Ba Xian - spent leaf
Broken-edged leaves with few bud-stem combos: machine harvested & rolled. but not bad.

For the price though, it's hard to beat it. It yields stronger flavors than most cheaper green tie guan yin I've had, which tend to be all floral aroma and no substance. The vendor page says the tea was baked in a charcoal fire, but I didn't taste any honey or caramel in any of my brewings of this tea. Initially I thought the tea had little energy, but when I began to drink the black tea my body trip started...

Taiwan Yuchih Hong Cha ("Fish Pond Village Black Tea" - Forest Black Tea Brand)

Taiwan Yuchih Black Tea - dry leaf

During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, they planted Assam varietal tea bushes around Eryue Tan (Sun Moon Lake) in Nan Tou County. My Taiwanese friend told me on our journey to Sun Moon Lake that the black tea planted there gained notoriety when the first lady of Taiwan, the Mrs. Chiang Kai-Shek, called it her favorite tea.

Taiwan Yuchih Black Tea - liquor

Given the small chopped leaves, I expected little of this tea but bitterness. However, the little bits gave up flavor as evenly as the large, twisted leaves I drank on the shores of the lake in Taiwan. The packaging says it should taste of "osmanthus, cinnamon, and peppermint", but of the three, all I could only identify osmanthus. Osmanthus stuck through every infusion, even the very last watery 7th infusion.

I should have used more leaves.

Even the dry bits smelled richly fruity. The flavors of osmanthus and biscuit had little other flavor notes to accomodate them, but the monotony was pleasant. No astringency--perhaps this is what separates it from Indian Assam, or maybe my water, clay kettle, and alcohol lamp soften water efficiently. It did taste Indian, but not like Assam. This Taiwanese Assam tasted more like 2nd flush Darjeeling.

I couldn't tell if my head rush and body tingles were from this tea alone or the cumulative effect of both teas. A fun body trip nonetheless, and rarely do I call a black tea relaxing. I paired the tea with Liang Mingyue's Yang Guan San Die and Lo Ka Ping's Lost Sounds of the Tao, both beautiful qin solo albums that complemented the tea well. The bubbling of my kettle in the background matched their silk string tonality so well it seemed recorded into the track.

Taiwan Yuchih Black Tea - spent leaves

06 February 2008

Rou Gui and misc thoughts on yan cha

Yan cha é mobile, qual piuma al vento

I brewed this rou gui as naturally as I could, via second nature rather than contrived monitoring of process. Although I try to brew every tea this way, I have limited success with yan cha. Of all teas, yan cha and dan cong pose a challenge to me as tea brewer, whether attempting to brew them naturally or otherwise.

They change with the weather. The humidity rises or drops 5%, and they change character. They demand of me!

Brewing pu'er always came to me naturally, like when I learned Spanish, but brewing yan cha is like learning classical Latin. Whereas slowly, I became more conversant in Spanish until it fell out of my mouth and spoke itself in my thoughts, and slowly I refined my pu'er brewing until I felt that I could carry any conversation with that tea, I stumble to decline and conjugate my yan cha. I've tried both the Occidental scientific approach with scales and timers, but spent more time cultivating a meta-sensibility about brewing the tea. In both cases, my efforts regularly came up short.

Traditional Rou Gui - dry leaf
Traditional Rou Gui, Dry Leaves in Qing Dynasty Saucer

Occasionally, I managed to decant a good infusion--rarer yet, complete a good session!--of yan cha. The problem I encounter: leaves yield good flavors too lightly or dump out unsavory flavors too strongly. I seek to find the middle. Yan cha is my current personal challenge. Those who know it well have offered me some very useful guidance about how to approach the tea: don't use standard amounts of leaf, use more, and stop when the pot is fragrant with dry leaf. Their insight has helped, but not enough--yet.

Don't get me started on dan cong. I suspect that dan cong is the last boss in my tea journey.

Traditional Rou Gui - brewed
Traditional Rou Gui, First Infusion in Ming Guo cup and Late Qing Saucer
Next to My Pretty Pretty Pot.

This rou gui started so well: pumpkin spice flavors with a buttered toast finish, luxurious scent, just a hint of florals. The wet leaves smelled plummy. It got sweeter, florals got stronger, but the pumpkin spice--the cinnamon of this "cinnamon" oolong--disappeared. Still pleasant and lingering, the middle was gone. High notes of florals and a deep bass of grain, but no middle. Hui gan alkaline and mouth-watering. Good qi, but progressively flatter and flatter in flavor, until by infusions 5 and 6, the tea struck only high notes and nearly died, castrato.

Traditional Rou Gui - spent leaf
Emerald Leaves Red with Oxidation. Pretty!

I blame myself. I have read good reviews of this tea by people who know Wuyi tea more intimately than me. I have enough leaves left for one more brewing of this tea, two in my smallest gaiwan.

Any tips?

05 February 2008

Windy Beginning: Hong Cha, Hei Cha

I figured it appropriate to begin the first post of an Occidental tea blog with red tea, the tea that most Westerners will encounter first. I chose a pu'er to finish this post because my tea journey has taken me to outlying regions of aged tea--pu'er in particular. Hong cha is where I started; hei cha is where I am now.

2007 Ju Qiu Hong Mei (from Jing Tea Shop)

Sebastien of Jing Tea Shop sent this sample to me gratis with my last order with him. This gongfu black tea hails from Hu Fou, Hang Zhou city, in Zhe Jiang Province, an area most famous for one of China's 10 Famous Teas, Long Jing aka Dragonwell.

The dry leaves appear delicate and wiry. Their curves mean they interlock, like they don't want to let go of each other. I felt giddy with epicaricacy when I fractured a measure of leaves into into my scoop.

Jiu Qu Hong Mei - dry leaves

Lascivious scents of roses, lavender, and grain arose from the wet leaves in the pot. In the empty fair cup, it left the aromatic trace of butter and malt. I knew just from the wash that this black tea would satisfy me on a chilly and windy night in a city more famous for sunshine.

I steeped it fast and loose the first few servings in a new pot, a pot of unknown clay: too dense and tonal to be hong ni, but too roughly textured to be zhu ni. The pot performed superbly on its christening steep.

Jiu Qu Hong Mei - liquor

The tea offered an initial velvety texture, stevia sweetness, malty/grainy flavor, and surprising hui gan for a black tea. Creamy, it performed more like a good Assam than a gongfu black tea, but with the delicate feminine lightness and finish only Chinese blacks capture . The creaminess wouldn't die, and the tea took longer infusions without a bit of astringency or acid. Before I checked the website, I wondered if this tea was aged. It's been about a year since it was produced, and it shows itself in smoothness.

Toward later steeps, the flavor remained similar, but the rose aroma in the wet leaves entered into the aroma left in the mouth. Eventually, by steep 6 or so, the tea became too light for my taste, sweet and grainy with a long creamy finish, but not pronounced enough for my taste. I think I used too few leaves.

Jiu Qu Hong Mei - wet leaves

Overall: one of the better black teas I've had. Usually they sit heavy in my stomach, but this did no such gastrointestinal damage.

1997 Zhongcha (CNNP) Yiwu Ye Sheng (from Teacuppa)

I bought this sample and had brewed it once before tonight. It drinks nicely for an adolescent tea, perhaps because of wetter (but not "wet storage" wet) Malaysian storage.

The tea claims to be "wild" and "Yiwu" tea. This tea falls within my experience of Yiwu teas at this age, but any claim to wildness I couldn't verify.

CNNP 1997 Yiwu Ye Sheng - dry leaves

The tea is hard to write about right now, cuz I'm already drunk on it. It started out sweet & easy, with honey and timber notes, soft mouthfeel that encompasses all areas of the mouth (tongue, soft and hard palates, even gums!). Hui gan took a while to build, but the more it built the longer it lingered.

The tea's clean start and finish pleased me. It soaked into the back of my tongue and dripped down my throat as though absorbed by a sponge, leaving a trail behind the whole way down. It became soothingly aromatic when its muted floral notes evaporated off my tongue as I breathed out my nose, and early on it made my ears, back, and shoulders tingle with moving qi.

CNNP 1997 Yiwu Ye Sheng - liquor

It tastes its age. No arguments there. Very late in the aftertaste--minutes later--a youthful bitterness appears. Maybe it's cut with a little border tea?

I started feeling silly and delirious some 6 infusions in. I wrote in my notes that the flavor was not quite wood but aromatic like a wood sauna. Obviously, my mind was elsewhere.

Unfortunately, with my finances the way they are of late, I won't enjoy this tea in more than 20g increments. But, that Teacuppa makes this tea available loose is an awesome move.

CNNP 1997 Yiwu Ye Sheng - wet leaves

Nonce thoughts on pu'er and aging
No one really knows anything yet. It's all guesswork. Whatever the aging, it doesn't matter all that much, because I haven't had any bad 20+ year old pu'er. Some better than others, sure, but none so bad I felt sorry to have tasted it. I feel more nonchalant about my teas' aging. In 30 years, all we collectors will be sitting on a mound of deliciousness. What's the worry?

I also wonder if the terroir of a pu'er diminishes with great age. With single-mountain productions only recently labeled, perhaps in the future we will know, but with so many lying labels, I fear we're just as much in the dark. But the feeling above cancels out any worry: it'll be good. Just enjoy it.