29 June 2008

2001 Xiaguan Bao Yan Shu Brick

I received this sample for free with an order from Skip4Tea, a Malaysian pu'er vendor that appears to sell tea on consignment. I had ordered the 2001 raw Xiaguan Bao Yan brick, and so the cooked version from the same year does seem a fitting inclusion.

2001 Xiaguan Bao Yan Shu Brick - dry leafThe storage in Malaysia is usually rather wet, similar to storage conditions in Taiwan. In my experience, cooked pu'er that has undergone wet storage develops a smoothness in flavor, a weakening almost, or better put a sort of character change. It becomes more like aged sheng, insomuch as the storage enhances the clarity of the liquor and the sweetness and cleanliness of the flavor. The storage additionally builds similarity in that cooked tea often develops mei wei, or "mold smell", a common base aroma in older pu'ers.

2001 Xiaguan Bao Yan Shu Brick - liquor & bunnyI could smell the storage--the mei wei--even in the bag. In the wet leaf, it mingled with the woodiness of the cooked tea and it smelled remarkably like wet stored sheng. The liquor's reddish brown color mimicked aged sheng, and I began to second-guess their labeling. Even upon tasting, I wondered if my confidence that the is cooked pu'er came from my observation or from the labeling. Maybe the leaves were lighter fermented? Not a hint of pond/fish/grossness, sweet like lotus root, warming.

It didn't last long, though, only about 4 good infusions, becoming sweet water at the 5th infusion, drinkable for its physical effects but not so much for its flavor. In Kunming, I had newer Xiaguan Bao Yan shu that also lasted only 4-5 infusions, so I think the leaf itself is to blame, rather than the storage. Also, I brewed the sample in a gaiwan, though I nearly always make my shu in a thick-walled pot.

2001 Xiaguan Bao Yan Shu Brick - leaf in gaiwan

28 June 2008

2007 Ruipin Hao Jingmai Spring Cake

Another Puerhshop sample, I'm finally making headway into the reservoir of samples I ordered from Jim. The link to this cake is here.

2007 Ruipin Hao Jingmai Spring Cake - dry leafAs is obvious from both the vendor's picture and the picture here, one of the striking features of this cake is the distinctness of the leaf. You can see where every leaf starts and ends, and they shine with plump health. The grade is higher, maybe grade 2 or 3 leaves, with plenty of silver furry tips.

It smells smoky, and tastes a bit that way, too, not overwhelming. The best word I could use to describe the taste is balanced. The flavor and texture--not thin--coat the mouth, but thinly. The bittersweet flavor, not too vegetal, reminds me of jinggu tea but with more oomph: not as crass as big factory tea, but in the same style. Where factory tea tends to be bitterly floral, this tea has more subdued aromatics in the cup. The aftertaste remains long, giving it a liveliness that makes it easier to enjoy, despite its bitter, smoky elements that put me off. I'd become accustomed to milder, sweeter Yiwu and Yiwu-analogous young sheng; this Jingmai spoke itself boldly and brought back my awareness of pu'er's regionality.

2007 Ruipin Hao Jingmai Spring Cake - spent leaf comparison
A curious blend

The leaves did yield something odd: a blend of about 10-15% dark, larger, leathery, strange leaf. Perhaps aged maocha, perchance over-oxidized or over-fried, maybe maocha from another location, maybe wild tree tea, who knows. I picked these leaves out and put them next to the others to illustrate.

At $15.90, it's a cheap and interesting pu'er with some strength and few negatives.

25 June 2008

Tea isn't fast food

My first exposure to gourmet tea delighted me, and my efforts to duplicate that experience frustrated me. Quickly I realized that not only did I find a myriad of different teas coming from a dozen different locations, but no two teas sharing the same name were entirely alike. Making the same tea twice never produces the same result in the cup, owed to a tangled mess of factors including varying water hardnesses, water temperature, storage conditions, ambient temperature, tea equipment, pouring styles, steep times, and incidental leaf quality, amongst many others. One characteristic makes tea simultaneously exasperating and fascinating: tea is difficult.

"Learning" tea--learning to identify tea, select tea, use teaware, brew tea--takes patience, time, and care. This learning process takes shape mostly through trial and error, which solidify into some tea truths for the individual brewer. For example, early in my tea path I purchased my first oolong, a tie guan yin, and it delighted me. I finished off all I had in a week. Wanting more, I bought another tie guan yin, expecting equally delicious results. While enjoyable, the second tie guan yin was so different from the first, I could hardly believe they shared the same name: their tastes and aromas were different, one flowery and the other vegetal, and though when dry their leaves appeared identical, when brewed one had tender deep green leaves and the other leathery yellow-green leaves. Worse, I soon discovered that just because some tea claims to be something, doesn't mean it's true. In all likelihood, the first tea was tie guan yin, and the second was its poor substitute, ben shan.

When I approached forums and chatrooms with this dilemma, "Why does this tie guan yin taste vegetal?" I received diverse advice and commentary. Some people advised me to adjust my brewing parameters: use less leaf, lower temperature, shorter steeps. Others advised the tea might have staled or was of low quality, and asked where I purchased it and how I had stored it. The answer, obviously, was complicated, prompting me to research online. There were several dozen tie guan yin teas for sale online. Some vendors put tie guan yin with green tea, some said oolong tea was "between green and black tea", others identified it without reference to green or black tea but within its own category. Tie guan yin was heavily roasted, medium roasted, light roasted. It was from Anxi, Zhejiang, Guangdong, and rarely in Taiwan. It could be fresh, slightly stale, or it could be aged. More confusion: China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia all had their own fist-shaped oolongs, and within these countries more than one varietal of fist oolong (tie guan yin, ben shan, huang jin gui, fo shou, mao xie, etc.) could be grown.

Each vendor offered different brewing instructions, no two entirely alike. I absorbed what I could from the various sources and tweaked my approach in various ways until I could manipulate the tea into something I enjoyed more. Eventually, I bought better tie guan yin and made the vegetal stuff into iced tea adding a drop of orange blossom water for palatability.

Playing around with oolong parameters is a lot of fun. Learning about oolong's complexity is interesting and rewarding: frustrating, but worth it.

This confusing, often contradictory information, although it didn't fix that mediocre oolong, did bring a diversity of opinion prompting questions that ultimately helped me when identifying and brewing other teas. I changed my approach, and noted the results. Moreover, as more vendors' teas went into my cup, the "truth" of tea fractured further: vendors present a truth about tea with at least some "spin" to raise the consumer value of their teas. They present information to sell their teas as authentic, well crafted, and well stored. And who can blame them? The job of marketing any product is to increase its consumer value, and if they do so with anecdotal information about the tea or general information about the tea genre, they add to the knowledge of tea available to consumers. However, they often use catchphrases like "traditional production" and "proper storage" with a strong sell of assurance that implies consumers should doubt other vendors: you can trust our tea.

The worst example of this came from a vendor whose teas have never impressed me, but who carries teaware I've liked. At the World Tea Expo, one of their high level employees, talking about their pu'er, said it was from a mountain without roads, which ensured that the tea was from the old trees on said mountain. He warned that many villagers on other mountains were trucking in low elevation pu'er and pu'er processed from green and black tea varietals to sell at the same premium price of the real mountain mao cha. When I explained that the cakes I produced came from a minority family on Nannuo who I saw picking the tea they then processed into mao cha before my eyes, he had the (ludicrous) balls to say I had probably been taken advantage of in the manner he warned about. I shrugged it off, thinking to myself that it's just as easy to carry bags of maocha on motorcycles to any village on any mountain, and unless either one of us supervised the production from start to finish, neither of us could claim 100% security in our tea.

I mention this because it illustrates part of the problem in answering the question, "How do you pick pu'er that will age well?" An esoteric tea from an area considered a marginal region by the dynasties and even the PRC itself, we know little about pu'er, and what we know we know without certainty. The significant factor of security stands in addition to other significant unanswered questions surrounding pu'er and aging: the effect of varietal, the effect of new production methods, blended region cakes versus single mountain cakes versus single estate cakes. We don't even know what flavors to look for, nor how we should weight flavor when considering pu'er for purchase.

When someone asked, "what should I look for in an ageable pu'er?" I had a different answer last year than I did the year before, and so on. Today, I explain that there are many theories, that the answer is unclear, and that people should experiment for themselves and read as much as they can. I might have said, "long aftertaste, feeling lingering in the throat, whole leaves, if it's bitter it should be after you swallow, it shouldn't taste like green tea or oolong too much, it should make you feel something (qi), little to no huang pian, not too smoky, and it should preferably be from older trees in Xishuangbanna or Simao counties." But, we have decent old tea from Vietnam, and we know Thai leaf has been used in the past. Traditional minority productions used to occur entirely indoors around wood-fired woks and were usually very smoky, but seemed to age fine. I've had tea "golden age" and "classic era" pu'ers with huang pian that had wonderful flavor and mouthfeel. I've tasted machine-pressed cakes from the 70s that satisfied me despite their broken leaves and machine compression. So, ask again, "What makes a good pu'er to age?" I shrug. We don't know. I won't go into storage conditions and approaches; suffice it to say that the factors are numerous.

But we speculate. We try teas and describe their flavors, mouthfeels, energies, tenacities. We take pictures. It's fun. I relish thinking about my own stock and what it will yield in the future, and I speculate in writing on this blog with nearly every young pu'er I try. But every speculation has a caveat. I don't really know. Neither does anyone else, no matter what they claim. Frustrating that such an important issue remains largely subjectified--but still very fun.

For all these reasons, because "knowledge" of tea often largely is opinion, an open mind and the allowance for growth and change is necessary for tea. Someone once told me--over cups of tea, actually--that learning can't happen unless you allow that there's something beyond your current knowledge. It was humbling to hear, but good for me. I look forward to changing my mind.


14 June 2008

2007 Yongpin Hao Yiwu Zhengshan (Spirit of Yiwu)

Another in the Spirit of Yiwu tasting from Puerhshop.

Fat whole leaves on the stem, loosely compressed, uniform throughout the cake, make the leaves of this cake the highest quality of the offerings in the sample set.

2007 Yongpin Hao Yiwu Zhengshan - dry leaf

One odd thing about the tea: it does very well in a pot, but gaiwans don't make this tea shine. In a pot, this tea is thick in flavor. In a gaiwan, this tea is thin, despite having the same aroma. I can't place what factor does this, but with many differences between pots and gaiwans, any of them could explain it: differences in heat retention, thickness, porosity, and/or pour time. Either way. In both cases, the aroma coats the nose with the usual straw smell, with finishing spice, maybe cardamom or cinnamon.

2007 Yongpin Hao Yiwu Zhengshan - infusion 3In a pot, the Yongpin Hao Yiwu Zhengshan offers syrupy texture, flavor of dry grass, and lingering sweet aftertaste. When it cools, rather than being bitter or sour, it becomes salty. The vegetal notes taste sweet, like the way grilled zucchini or eggplant is sweet, kind of gourd-like, and at times buttery. Oddly enough, I found no florals in this tea. It activates the sensors on the hard palate. Lovers of young sheng, like myself, would probably like this tea. Collectors, too, maybe: it tastes like "factory" tea without the bitter and smoke.

The only bad is it's a bit metallic in flavor at times, doesn't brew well in a gaiwan, and is temperature sensitive: anything under a full boil doesn't give the best flavor. But these are all small complaints. Actually, one thing that could be bad is that, while this tea tastes great, it tastes awful after eating something sweet, like botched green tea. Maybe, though, any sheng pu'er would taste that way after eating something sweet, like mixing cranberry and milk.

I really enjoy this tea. I've drunk almost all my sample.

2007 Yongpin Hao Yiwu Zhengshan - spent leaf

13 June 2008

An Experiment with Pu'er Flowers, 1999 Menghai Mini Bing (Silk Road Tea)

1999 Mini Menghai Cake - wrapperMy guest reviewer from before, Davin, purchased some "Fleur de Pu Er" from Le Palais Gourmet. The same day, I received a package of tea I purchased from a friend who wanted to unload some of his surplus. He generously included a few freebies, amongst which was the 1999 Mini Menghai Bing from Silk Road Teas.

We decided to do a two-part experiment out of curiosity. Because some vendors have claimed that including tea flowers in pu'er cakes was "traditional" or the "indigenous" way of making tea (oddly enough, tea plants flower in fall, and pu'er is supposedly traditionally made in spring...hrm...), we decided to brew, side by side, the 1999 cake with and without tea flowers, to see how it fared.

Before the meat of the post, I'd like to mention that I have seen only 1999 Mini Menghai Cake - cake and flowersone cake include tea flowers, the 2004 Rongzhen Factory cake formerly offered at Hou De, currently on offer at Puerhshop. I have never tasted nor seen any aged tea from the 1920s or after that included flowers. In fact, the only tea I've seen that does is the 2004 Rongzhen cake. I can't trace the documentation, because almost nobody seems to be selling these flowers currently (only Rishi Tea and Palais Gourmet, the latter may have sourced from the former, and neither gives information). If anyone has any source information on the history of the use of tea flowers in China, please contact me.

Another bit of information: according to a 2002 study at the Institute of Biochemistry at National Taiwan University, tea flowers have nearly the same antioxidant levels, but far less caffeine, than actual tea leaves. If you want the benefit of drinking tea but are caffeine sensitive or want to avoid caffeine, these might be for you.

We used competition tasting sets and identical weights of tea, 7 grams of the cake. In the tea flower mix, we used 1.5 grams of tea flowers, about 8 blossoms.

Parameters: 7g leaf, 7g leaf + 1.5g flowers, 120ml tasting sets, boiling remineralized RO water with bamboo charcoal. timing: 5s rinse. 10s, 10s, 15s, 10s, 10s

1999 Mini Menghai Cake - cake closeup Pu'er flowers

A couple of things stood out to me. First, the 1999 cake--looking far younger than 8-9 years old--had some aged taste to it. Second, the aroma of the leaves, without flowers, resembled bbq sauce: sweet, spicy, smokey. With the flowers, though, the aroma was floral, orchid, honey, and masked the smoke. Initially, the leaves-only mix tasted flat, and the leaves with flowers tasted rounder, softer, finished longer, and had a thick, syrupy texture.

1999 Mini Menghai Cake - comparison (red side is flowers)
Without flowers on left, with flowers on right

But which tea we preferred alternated from brew to brew. Some brews, the leaves-only brew offered aged flavor that hit the gullet the whole way down. Other times, the roundness and soft texture of the flowered pu'er softened bitterness and awkward adolescent flavors found in the leaves-only mix. Both, at times, were very astringent and drying, and both sometimes had none. In the fourth infusion, the difference in flavor and aroma was so subtle we couldn't distinguish one from the other. The fifth infusion then reversed this, and they were very distinct: the flowered version stayed on the palate much, much longer.

1999 Mini Menghai Cake - spent leaf (no flowers)
Without flowers

1999 Mini Menghai Cake - spent leaf with flowers
With flowers

Ask me which I'd prefer to drink, and I don't think I could say. Davin says the tea was more interesting with flowers, but not necessarily more enjoyable. I agree: the age of this tea gives it some strange pubescent flavors, so it was a weird comparison. Even without the flowers, this mini bing needs more time; it's not wonderful to drink, yet. With its interesting mouthfeel and relative power after 9 years of very dry storage, I think it has some promise.

As mentioned, we intend to experiment again. Next time we intend to test if the flowers, which overall lend a very muted flavor and subtle aroma, blend well with shu pu'er.

12 June 2008

2007 Guanzizai Yiwu Zhengshan (Spirit of Yiwu)

2007 Guanzizai Yiwu Zhengshan - sample This Yiwu cake was one of four members of "The Spirit of Yiwu" tasting set. I visited their distributor in Kunming and tried a two of their cakes, and remember at the time thinking they were passable, not exceptional.

The leaves of this cake are of medium size. The sample I received was all one layer--the face of the cake--so I can't say too much about the leaf.

This "Yiwu Zhengshan" bing fits in with my opinion of their cakes from before. Thin, bland, but with decent energy/caffeine, it tastes more like good green tea than sheng pu'er, even though it shares sheng pu'er's fertile, nearly floral scent. When I encounter bland young sheng it rouses my curiosity, usually resulting in a test overbrewing. Overbrewed, the tea is floral, biscuity, smokey, and otherwise flat.

The flavor sticks to the sides of the tongue, but doesn't extend past the back of the tongue. It becomes bitter around the 6th infusion, an unpleasant full tongue bitterness like long jing brewed too hot. It does, however, get a bit lemony and sour. It doesn't cause salivation; instead, it dries the mouth. It does, though, have a heady qi that's obvious from the second infusion onward.

In later infusions, it gets a little meatier, as though what good maocha used in this cake has surpassed the weakened flavors of the lesser maocha. However, the dry mouth remains, sour remains in the initial taste, and, perhaps left over in the mouth from previous infusions, the unpleasant bitterness haunts the tongue after each swallow. 2007 Guanzizai Yiwu Zhengshan - brew

While it seems I'm being harsh with this tea, I have had worse. In the spectrum of pu'er, this is not that bad. Still, taking it for what it is, removing it from the context of other pu'ers I've had, I can't drink it with pleasure now, nor with fond thoughts of its future. But, not having aged my own stash for more than 4 years, I can't really say, nor can most anyone else.

The leaves appear blended, a mix of bigger, mostly whole hand-picked leaves with machine-harvested smaller leaves and bits. The bigger leaves show signs of oolong oxidation, with many reddened leaf borders and reddened central veins. It was odd to me that this tea's leaves displayed more oolong traits but tasted green, while the leaves of the Tongxing Yiwu from yesterday showed almost no oxidation but tasted sweeter. Looks are deceiving.

2007 Guanzizai Yiwu Zhengshan - spent leaf

11 June 2008

2006 Tongxing Hao Yiwu Gu Cha (Best of Puerhshop)

This is an offering included in the "Best of Puerhshop" tasting kit. Just an FYI, the tasting kit promotion ends June 30. Luckily, though, this and many other tea samples are still available separately.

2006 Tongxing Hao Yiwu Gu Cha - dry leaf

The dry leaves come apart easily; it was loosely compressed or has become so with 2 years of age. I notice this is the case with stemmy cakes like this one. They tend to fall apart with little pressure.

After a quick initial wash, poured over my pot as a thank you, I commenced a second tasting of this tea. I already tried it twice at work, and wanted to give it more attention.The wet leaves smell like dried out fallen leaves with some back notes of fruitiness.

2006 Tongxing Hao Yiwu Gu Cha - brewThis Tongxing Hao has a few characteristics worth mentioning. First, it has a wonderful smooth, round, silky texture, similar to great soy milk. Second, aside from its light fruitiness (which borders on oolongishness in middle infusions), it has a distinct creamy/milky flavor that reminds me of Vietnamese leaf after wet storage. Third, like the "truly wild" cakes, this tea also tasted sour at the finish, mostly as the tea cooled.

There is some old tree material in here, though I don't know how much; the wet leaves are uniform, showing no visual evidence of blending. The brew never became bitter, and like good old Yiwu tea, it caused a lot of saliva production and could be felt in the throat. A fleeting mintiness appeared at the tip of the tongue and disappeared as quickly.

All in all, at its current price of $17.50/cake, it could be a good buy. It's sweet enough to drink now, but has the "feel" of a tea that could possibly age well, assuming things like throatiness, salivary activation, mintiness, and aftertaste are markers of such things.

2006 Tongxing Hao Yiwu Gu Cha - spent leaf

10 June 2008

Reuniting with Marshaln...

The last time I saw Marshaln was in Shanghai in February or March of 2007. I was spending hours and hours with Thom, Action Jackson, and alone at the Tianshan and Jiuxing tea markets there, and gaining lots of weight eating a dozen red bean cakes everyday. The last time I'd seen Marshaln before then was in Beijing, at the very beginning of my journey through China, frittering our time away at Maliandao:

L & J at Maliandao

The first time I met Marshaln, Phyll Sheng was there. Wet met at Chado in Pasadena to share some tea and get to know each other:


Phyll Sheng disappeared, and Marshaln had been to Taiwan and back doing research.

This past weekend, Marshaln was back in LA for a quick trip, so some of us got together Sunday afternoon and rejoiced in his arrival and shared some tea. Phyll Sheng rose from the dead to join Danica, Nick, Davin and me at the home of Will and Louise, where we drank a slough of teas.

Tea Affair for LZ - Sassy Danica

Danica's drunk on tea. Nick is comparatively serious.

Danica took the helm at first and brewed us some green teas from ITC, an anji baicha and a long jing. The baicha was mild and vegetal; the long jing steeped into something strange, almost rotten tasting.

Tea Affair for LZ - ITC Imperial Green 1 Tea Affair for LZ - Bottoms up!

Left: Anji Baicha Right: Bottoms up! (LZ's and Davin's hands)

Lawrence made some approx. 20-year aged oolong in a beautiful three-footed pot, both of which he purchased in Taiwan, then some 1980s baozhong from Houde. Will ended the day's brewing with some tasty "old tree tea" Wuyi oolong. We ended with a Da Hong Pao from Teacuppa, which brewed better in Danica's pots the first time I tried it.

Tea Affair for LZ - LZ with Kitty 2 Tea Affair for LZ - Danica, relaxed

Left: LZ, Nick & Cat Right: Danica relaxes

It was excellent to see him again, and rewarding to hang out with a small part of the LA Tea Affair gang.

These kinds of tea meets offer the valuable opportunity to learn about tea from several people in a single meeting, discussing their approaches to gongfu brewing, tea ware, water, and the like. When confronted with a diversity of opinion on subjective matters like tea brewing, I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to soak it all in and supplement my education. Because this learning loosens the foundation of my tea brewing, I leave their company ambivalent about particularities of tea and brewing tea, eager to experiment, while waiting to meet up again.

05 June 2008

Da Yu Qi Dancong (Tea Habitat)

Da Yu Qi dancong - dry leaf This tea was another gifted sample from Imen of Tea Habitat. I'm not sure what the name means.

As is visible in the photo, the leaves of this dancong are long, gem green, and whole. The dry leaves have a notably muted and unplaceable aroma. Post-rinse, the wet leaves have a low, thick nose of citrus and honey, like if there were such a thing as an orange pie.

This dancong promised to yield an interesting session.

I chose to brew the Da Yu Qi dancong in a thinner 150ml gaiwan instead of a pot, and because of its larger leaves and volume of the vessel, I used nearly all of the sample Imen provided me. In the end, I think this was a successful way to highlight the strengths of this tea.

Da Yu Qi dancong - liquorThis Da Yu Qi has brawn. The aroma's low stoutness predicted the power of the flavor. Jammy, almost chewable, starchy and aromatic, the tea swallowed like molasses and tasted like dates and tangerine, without acidity. Each of the first 5 brews or so gave this flavor and feeling consistently.

Later brews thinned, went down the throat like brine and with some salty flavor and orchid nose. Eventually, it ended in ephemeral citrus notes. It carved a trail in the throat--not the usual coated feeling, but like the tea did something to my throat as it went down. This feeling lasted for nearly an hour after I stopped drinking it.

I noticed, somewhat late in the session, that I wasn't feeling particularly tea drunk or hyper, but I drank this after finishing off an intoxicating pu'er from the previous evening.

Da Yu Qi is a dancong weighted toward its flavor rather than its aroma, making it more interesting on the tongue and easier to brew than the average dancong. It might not please someone looking for the usual experience with this genre of tea, but I enjoyed it.

Da Yu Qi dancong - spent leaves