28 September 2011

2005? Haiwan Lao Tongzhi Sheng Bing (wet stored)

"Lao Tongzhi" (老同志) can mean one of two things: "old comrade", as intended by this brand name, or "old homosexual", in Chinese slang. I would really like to make a pu'er cake under the brand "Old Homosexual" and have a pic of Rip Taylor smiling, perhaps confetti would dot the paper. I don't think the Chinese would get it, though.
I think it could work, no?

This sample comes to me courtesy of MarshalN, whom I begged for a sample because I happen to own a similar cake from the year before. I wanted a glimpse into the future. The moldy future, as per the frosty leaf below:

2005 Haiwan Lao Tongzhi Sheng Bing (Traditional Storage) - dry leaf

This traditionally stored tea went through its time at a wet storage warehouse, and its release into the market is perhaps premature. Generally, these teas are wet stored for 2 years and then aired out for another long period, perhaps as much as 6 to 10 years or more. 2005 plus 2 is 2007, plus 6 is 2013. But here it is, our little premie, forced into our world still frosted with mold.

In 2005, this cake was known for being a punch-you-in-the-mouth (ow!) sheng pu, powerful, bitter, complex, and with a long aftertaste. And now...?

2005 Haiwan Lao Tongzhi Sheng Bing (Traditional Storage) - brewed

The first two infusions are mostly mold taste, with some tea flavor appearing when cool. The more interesting flavors appear thereafter, but with the mold taste ever-present above them. It's strong but more like a slap (I demand satisfaction, sir!) than a punch, to keep my violent metaphor going. The "soup" is nicely thick and the aftertaste and afteraroma are decently long. It even lingers at the root of the tongue.

It pleased me to see this tea change into something drinkable and enjoyable, moldiness aside. It would do better with drier storage, and so I'm looking forward to tasting mine again soon to see how it compares.

2005 Haiwan Lao Tongzhi Sheng Bing (Traditional Storage) - brewed leaf

From the brewed leaves as pictured above, it seems the storage was not too wet; the leaves have not carbonized, and they retain their tenderness and flexibility.

24 September 2011

Taiwan Hong Oolong (Black Tea Oolong)

During our two-week trip to China earlier this year, I had little time to tea shop. Tea shopping in China takes a long time, because a consumer must spend a lot of time sorting:
  1. Sorting through hundreds of shops in tea malls to decide which dozen or more you want to enter
  2. Sorting through the offerings of these shops visually and/or by talking to the employees to find teas you want to try
  3. Sorting through the teas you taste to determine which merits asking its price
  4. Sorting through the asking prices to determine which is worth bargaining down
  5. Bargaining for the tea, if you have the luck to get through steps 1-4
As such, a consumer can feel lucky to actually purchase more than one tea per day of shopping.

As such, I bought relatively few teas in China.

This particular tea I bought as a curiosity. Its manufacture utilizes steps traditionally reserved only for either black tea or oolong tea. My understanding is the tea is:
  1. Picked as though intended to be an oolong
  2. Wilted and oxidized like a black tea
  3. Not given a "kill green" (杀青) process, i.e., frying or steaming, like a black tea
  4. Rolled like an oolong
  5. Roasted like an oolong
Taiwan Hong Oolong / Black Tea Oolong - dry leaf

The result you see in the dry leaf pic above and the subsequent photos below.

So why go through all this? From what my limited Chinese and translating online has lead me to understand, tea farmers in Taiwan wanted a uniquely Taiwanese product from their leaves, one that could not easily be replicated by the cheap "imitation" gao shan oolongs being imported from countries in Southeast Asia. Also, and merely guessing on my part, they wanted to diversify their product portfolio with a high-end and uncommon product.

So, merely a gimmick or more substantially a delicious tea?

Taiwan Hong Oolong / Black Tea Oolong - brewed

My answer is: a little of column A, a lot of column B.

It is a unique animal, a combination of some of the best features of oolongs combined with a hint of the better features of black tea. It has a very fruity flavor and great aroma, but also rich and roasty.

Given the high degree of oxidation, what surprised me was how different the tea is from both Taiwan black tea and oriental beauty oolong. Taiwan's black tea tends to run in the Assam flavor category, while oriental beauty to me has always tasted like a poor imitation of better darjeeling. This oolong, being made of a different cultivar than Taiwan black tea and processed like gaoshan oolong rather than oriental beauty, has a character all its own that I enjoy better than either of those two.

Its flaws: simplicity and a fleeting aftertaste (black tea/high oxidation trait?), and it lasts only 5 infusions or so, which is more than a black tea (owed to the rolling/unfurling slowing the infusions?) but less than a gaoshan oolong.

I know of no US/English-language vendor selling this kind of tea, and I am unsure what the cost would be. I paid just under USD$20 for 100g, and I can't say if I was "taken for a ride" or not, because no other store in the tea mall I went into had it for sale, so there was no comparing prices.

The store had butcher paper pinned to the wall where customers could write comments, and they asked me to sign. I wrote: "I came in to find pu'er, but instead I bought oolong. They must be Taiwanese!"

Taiwan Hong Oolong / Black Tea Oolong - brewed leaf

14 September 2011

Dayi 2007 Yue Chen Yue Xiang Shu Bing

2007 Dayi "Yue Chen Yue Xiang" Shu Bing - leaf
Another sample from Mr. Jogrebe, it's hard to believe that 2007 was 4 years ago. When Dayi was pressing this "Yue Chen Yue Xiang" ("The older, the more fragrant") tea, I was either in Southeast Asia or just returning to California. Time flies!

The leaves look a pretty consistent grade, with not too many buds. The chunk in the back right shows some really broken leaf, but that was a piece from around the center dimple of the cake.

The tea tastes on the woody end of the shu spectrum, with a black peppery/spicy note. It's middle or middle light fermented based on taste, with a savory flavor and almost milky texture. It had a kind of  cooling effect.

2007 Dayi "Yue Chen Yue Xiang" Shu Bing - brewed

Average shu tea, not my preference, as I prefer my blends to have the oomph and soil notes of some darker fermented leaf along with these cleaner, woodier notes. Taking the tea for what it is, it's a decent example.

Looking at the wet leaves, the fermentation is quite light. It looks like a blend of sizes of leaf, but not a blend of fermentations. I.e., it looks like they blended maocha and then fermented it, rather than blending various already fermented shu material.
2007 Dayi "Yue Chen Yue Xiang" Shu Bing - brewed leaf

11 September 2011

China Cha Dao Da Hong Pao AAA+

The last of the China Cha Dao sample pack!

Da Hong Pao is the berobed king of Wuyi tea. Its origin legend says a tea farmer saved the emperor of China from a deadly illness with the leaves of this tea, and the emperor showed his thanks by giving unto the tree his robe, hence the name of the tea, translatable into "great red robe" (or "big red robe" by those with less poetry in their translation--"Grand Scarlet Cloak" for those with too much poetry in their translation).

Other origin stories say that the only real Da Hong Pao tea comes from the varietal Bei Dou Yi Hao ("Big Dipper #1" or more poetically, "North Star #1"), "discovered" by a Da Hong Pao researcher named Yao Yue Ming, who spent much of his life trying to determine the origin of the original Da Hong Pao bush. He narrowed his search down to a few locations on Wuyi Mountain, including Bei Dou Peak, took cuttings from two bushes there which he named #1 and #2 after the location. More on his story as summarized by Guang of Hou De Asian Art here. Legends heaped upon legends, two stories of men saving the dying: one man the emperor via tea, the other man the very same tea bushes via his courage.

Excellent tea legendry aside, what Chinese tea wholesalers and retailers then do shows less magnificence and self-sacrifice. Much tea is passed off as Da Hong Pao that simply isn't. Some of it is crap; naming Da Hong Pao one of China's ten famous teas means it's often the only Wuyi oolong variety most Chinese can name, and much low grade oolong is made under the moniker of Da Hong Pao to supply the high demand for the tea.

Others passed as Da Hong Pao are blends, aspirations by the producer or vendor to balance the best aspects of their best teas, hoping for a gestalt. Yet others simply take their best Wuyi oolong and entitle it Da Hong Pao, as to say, "it doesn't get any better than this, folks!"

Yet other vendors, perhaps catering to a more elite or snobby tea clientele, tell customers that Da Hong Pao is just Bei Dou, quickly relate the story of Yao Yue Ming and explain that for this reason they sell Bei Dou and not Da Hong Pao.

And whichever vendor you ask will point to their tea being the "true" thing: all DHP is really blended, all DHP is really bei dou, all DHP is just the best Wuyi on offer.

For those of you familiar with these stories, what's your take?

China Cha Dao Da Hong Pao AAA - leaf

So, onto my thoughts on China Cha Dao's higher grade DHP (for thoughts on their lower grade DHP, click here).

Fragrant leaves in the bag have a dark dried fruit smell, which turns into a wheaty/grainy roasted smell when the leaves are rinsed.

I was struck by the very smooth mouthfeel and the oil visible floating like a slick on the top of my cup. The roast and grain/fruit flavors harmonized well. It became sweeter in the second infusion but backed off thereafter, combining fruit with a mild sourness to taste like stone fruit, like apricot. A mineral/rocky taste supports these other flavors.

As far as the body traits of the tea, its thick body oddly left with only a medium-long finish. In fact, I would say has a "medium" sense about it: medium-dark flavors, medium acidity, medium-light fragrance, medium-length aftertaste. Very well balanced, and it really shined in longer infusions, never becoming bitter despite using the entire 10.4g sample in my 100ml gaiwan. Its only flaw is a lack of gan, perhaps caused by its lack of bitterness.

China Cha Dao Da Hong Pao AAA - brewed

Although rather "medium" in strength, it lasts many infusions without weakening, becoming fruitier in later infusions.

A stellar trait of this tea is how it made me feel. It was the only sample with a noticeable qi, and it was a very strong one. It made me tea-tipsy and was a good complement to my newest music download, an oddball percussion album by Slagwerk Den Haag that's 55 minutes of guys hammering on two-by-fours cut to give different pitches, their staccato hammering creating secondary melodies in the overtones. Trippy stuff for a trippy tea.
China Cha Dao Da Hong Pao AAA - brewed leaf

Given the look of the wet leaves, which show two distinct colors of leaf, I guess this is a DHP of the blended genre. Also supporting that guess is the balance of the tea, which struck me as an achievement of blending rather than processing.

Da Hong Pao AAA+ costs the same as the Golden Key, which is at the high end of China Cha Dao's Wuyi range.

To recap the sampler, I'd rank them:
  1. Shi Ru AAA+, Da Hong Pao AAA+ (tie)
  2. Shui Xian AAA+
  3. Qi Lan A
  4. Golden Key AAA+
  5. Da Hong Pao
Thank you again to Jerry Ma of China Cha Dao for offering this sampler pack.

09 September 2011

China Cha Dao Golden Key Grade AAA+

China Cha Dao Golden Key "AAA+" - leaf

Continuing on with the oolong samples from China Cha Dao, I decided to bring the remaining two along to tea with the LA Tea Affair group this past weekend. While tasting teas and writing notes and forming my own opinion forms the basis of this blog, writing about tea in a vacuum does eventually feel unnatural. Tea at its best is group sharing of simultaneous individual experiences of a tea among friends and friends-to-be.
We only tried one, the Golden Key Grade AAA+. The entire 10g sample was brewed in a 110ml yixing pot, making for an altogether different experience from my 90-100ml gaiwan at home.

China Cha Dao Golden Key "AAA+" - brewed

Like the Shi Ru, the Golden Key is rather heavily oxidized and, likewise, reminded me of dancong in flavor and aroma: fruity, floral. Also similar to the Shi Ru, the Golden Key finished more like a wuyi oolong, roasty and masculine. Unlike the Shi Ru, the Golden Key began sour.

It was thinner and everyone commented that it was missing something, and I think this item missing was gan. The bitterness of the tea faded away without a returning sweetness, leaving only an astringent fruitiness behind. This struck some as having a "commercial grade" feel to it, tasting good but lacking some of the body characteristics that take good Wuyi oolongs beyond good and into great.

China Cha Dao Golden Key "AAA+" - brewed leaf

The Golden Key also gave out sooner than the other teas, giving maybe 4 good infusions before becoming watery.

One sample left, Da Hong Pao, the king of Wuyi teas, and an AAA+ no less! Great expectations...

07 September 2011

Six Famous Tea Mountain 2009 "Yunnan Moon" Organic Shu Bing

Organic shu pu'er is uncommon, even teas certified as organic only by the Chinese organic certification organization, the Organic Food Certification & Development Center, which is in turn certified by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements. Perhaps someone can comment here about if IFOAM or USDA has stricter standards?

Personally, I'm not willing to pay a premium for most organic foods, as I have found that most foods grown with care taste the same organic or non-organic, and the conflicting results of studies on long term results of eating organic have left me unconvinced of any health benefit. Mark Bittman's piece on eating better more or less sums up my feeling that eating organically for most people means no health benefit, because they don't change their eating habits away from meat-heavy, fat-heavy, sweets-heavy diets, and that the environment would be a lot better off if we ate less meat and more vegetables. I don't want to go as far as Will of teadrunk.org and give up all meat products, but I think my non-organic eating habits qualify as healthy.
Six Famous Tea Mountain 2009 Yunnan Moon Organic Shu - leaf

But my thinking there I apply to consumable items grown in the West. Start talking China, where pesticide and agriculture chemical regulation is spotty at best, and I would probably be happier if all tea carried a USDA organic label. Not knowing much about the OFDC process, how often they check up on farmers, and how often the IFOAM checks up on the OFDC, the little cabbage organic label means little to me, but the analysis sheet included with this tea is, at least, a mote of psychological comfort when consuming something that is essentially composted camellia leaves.

So, all that expository explanation behind us, does this OFDC-certified shu pu'er taste better?

Six Famous Tea Mountain 2009 Yunnan Moon Organic Shu - brewed

No, on the whole it's average. It's woody, not soily, not pondy, and monotone. It has an unpleasant sharpness when brewed strong and not enough depth when brewed weak. No aftertaste, but a camphory effect appears over time. It doesn't last more than 5 infusions.

A tea that is not good and not bad. It would work well with a meal, having enough of the earthy, woody shu flavors to complement a dish without being too interesting as to be a distraction. It would probably do very well in a dark stew in place of broth.

I will likely finish up this sample at work, where such ignorable teas are desirable.
Six Famous Tea Mountain 2009 Yunnan Moon Organic Shu - brewed leaf

06 September 2011

Two Teas from Tearoma: 1996 YCTT Ye Sheng Brick & "1999" 8582

Will of Teadrunk.org gave me two samples he ordered from the new vendor Tearoma.us: a 1996 "Wild" leaf tea brick and a 1999 8582. Oddly enough, I decided to brew the former Sunday morning, just before the LA Tea Affair group was scheduled to meet, and one of our number had a full cake of the 1999 8582 that he had purchased from Tearoma.

1996 YCTT Wild Tea Brick
This was the tea that appealed most to me when I browsed Tearoma's site. Appearing visibly aged and at an unbeatable price for its age, it seemed almost too good to be true.
1996 YCTT Ye Sheng Brick - leaf

The dry tea confirmed it had some age with a hit of the "mold smell" concomitant of 15 years of aging in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and this stinkiness was echoed in wafting steam from the brewed leaf.

This storage smell became a storage taste, the telltale "mold taste" ("mei wei"), along with the straw underpinnings of the "wild" variety leaf. It tasted salty at times, with some youth to the taste in a bitter herb/fennel note. The flavors were fleeting on the tongue, the feeling of the tea remaining on the tongue moreso and longer than the flavor.
1996 YCTT Ye Sheng Brick - brewed

The storage taste did not wash away with subsequent brewings; perhaps it will air out over time. This made for a "one note" experience. Not a bad tea, but not a great tea, worth about what they're charging. Perhaps it was just aged poorly or needs more time to air out. Wild leaf is darker to start with and given how wet the tea smells, I still expected darker brewed leaf. The emerald/purple leaves are common for the "wild" varietal.
1996 YCTT Ye Sheng Brick - brewed leaf

"1999" 8582
Hobbes of The Half-Dipper already reviewed this tea, and rather than expand upon his review with my own writings, I'll simply leave it with "he's right" and some photos.

One thing I will add is that the "butteriness" he detected I also detected, and it's a marker I associate with "green tea pu'er". There is some green tea/poorly processed sheng pu'er in this blend; the real pu'er flavor kicked in after infusion 4 with longer steeps.

Please note the following signs as to the tea not being from 1999: the stainless, bright white neifei; the 100% fresh, bright, unfrayed ribbon; the neifei being added on later, as though the tea was pressed and marketed with different nei fei for different buyers; the bright green of the leaves; the bright yellow of the liquor. I've had 2003 teas from dry Kunming that look more aged.
"1999" 8582 from Tearoma.us - cake face and nei fei
"1999" 8582 from Tearoma.us - cake back
"1999" 8582 from Tearoma.us - brewed
"1999" 8582 from Tearoma.us - brewed leaf

05 September 2011

China Cha Dao Shi Ru "AAA+"

China Cha Dao Shi Ru "AAA+" - dry leaf
The remaining three samples from China Cha Dao carry the grade "AAA+", including this Shi Ru ("rock milk"? Some have suggested "stalactite", but that's rushi (乳石) not shiru (石乳)). These kinds of grades, I'm finding, have either or both of the following psychological effects: it biases the drinker to think the tea is better or it really raises expectations. Will I be biased that this tea will meet my raised expectations?
The tea smells like passionfruit with vegetal green oolong smell and some roasted aroma, very balanced. The taste likewise sits in balance: fruitiness, vegetal, a little roast, ending oily and fragrant in the mouth. Over the infusions, the fruitiness and vegetal flavors take center stage, and the roast stands in the background. It reminds me of what good mainland China Tie Guan Yin used to taste like before it went "nuclear green": halfway between wuyi's thick roasted savory flavors and dancong's thinner fruitiness.
China Cha Dao Shi Ru "AAA+" - brew

Unlike the other rock teas in the sampler, the Shi Ru has no sourness.

It tastes very well oxidized, and as the brews went on and on, I wondered if this is not a yancha at all, but instead a well roasted dancong! But then, it finishes mineral and thick like a wuyi, and the steaming leavees smell more like wuyi than dancong.
China Cha Dao Shi Ru "AAA+" - brewed leaf

11g in 100ml held up very well to gongfu brewing: the tea lasted upwards of 16 infusions with punchy, very sweet flavor, a difficult task for most oolongs.

So far, this is the best of the bunch, more fragrant and interesting than the Shui Xian at slighly higher a price. I enjoyed being reminded of what Tie Guan Yin was like before contemporary Chinese tastes and modernized production gutted its flavor, but people who like the heavier roasted, savory flavors of wuyi might find this too oxidized/fruity and not roasted enough for their tastes.

2011 Nannuo "Ba Wan(?) Village" Mao Cha

2011 Nannuo "Ba Wan" Mao Cha - brewed

We in LA are very lucky to have a regular in our midst who travels yearly to China and purchases and/or receives as gifts or samples some interesting teas. Linda of Bana Tea Company has brought us curious teas, such as a black tea made of Simao pu'er varietal tea buds.

During our last meeting, she promised to bring some mao cha (sheng pu'er raw material, i.e., unpressed sheng pu'er) from this year. Today, we sampled a 2011 Nannuo tea from an area called "Ba Wan" (an unfamiliar name to me that I may be butchering).
2011 Nannuo "Ba Wan" Mao Cha - leaf

Despite Hobbes calling it "namby-pamby" and noting that MarshalN simply isn't a fan, I rather like Nannuo teas for their high floral fragrance that floats above their thick, herbal terroir. Nannuo is a flavor and fragrance that is instantly recognizable, but doesn't punch you in the mouth like Bulang or Lincang teas can.
2011 Nannuo "Ba Wan" Mao Cha - brewed leaf

This Nannuo, although a little light from a weaker brewing at lower temperatures (the preference of the purveyor), brought me back to tasting mao cha on the mountain in 2007, watching the Akha farmer's toothless mother walking to and from their bushes, doubled over with the years of hauling that big-as-she-is wicker basket to and from their patches of tea trees.

Thanks again, Linda!

03 September 2011

Dayi 2008 "Great Classic" (大经典) Shu Bing

This was a sample sent courtesy of Jogrebe, America's greatest shu pu'er lover--or, at least, the one who drinks the most quantity of anyone I have come across.

2008 Dayi Great Classic Shu Bing - leaf

The leaves are medium small, not quite tribute grade. I like this size of leaf because its better examples offer a similar flavor to gongting (tribute) teas but without the difficulty of brewing tiny leaves.

Interestingly, the smell after the rinse is mineral. The flavor is rooty, like jicama or potato skin, sweet and bright lifting up the darker notes of bark.

2008 Dayi Great Classic Shu Bing - brewed

The compression of the cake seems pretty high (maybe I received pieces from closer to the center of the cake?), which meant the leaves released their flavors slowly and consistently across infusions.

The wonderful thing about this shu pu'er is that, in a genre known for odd flavors, there is nothing odd about it. This is also its biggest drawback: while it suffers no glaring flaws, it offers nothing exceptionally interesting, either. It appears to be unblended, and perhaps being all of one leaf and fermentation prevents it from being complex.

2008 Dayi Great Classic Shu Bing - brewed leaf

At just under $18, you could do better and you could do worse. Someone looking for lighter flavored shu with no flaws that doesn't require much finesse to brew into something tasty, this fits the bill. For something more interesting, check out its cousins in the brand.

01 September 2011

China Cha Dao Da Hong Pao

China Cha Dao - Da Hong Pao - leaf

The least expensive of the teas from the China Cha Dao sample pack at $23/500g and the only one without a listed grade, the leaves of the gradeless Da Hong Pao are broken/short and dark. It smells very heavily roasted, even when dry.

I used all 11g in my gaiwan, again "Brazil nutting" to put the bigger leaves on top.

China Cha Dao - Da Hong Pao - brew

To my delight, the brewed tea only a little sour, and although heavily roasted, the roasted flavor never crosses into the "tastes like charcoal" territory. While some interesting floral notes appear in the taste in the 3rd and 4th infusions, and the aftertaste is decent, the tea is monotone.

Eventually, in later steepings the "cheap restaurant oolong" flavor emerges, a sort of "unnatural" sweetness: not artificial, but out of place. It's not strong enough to be awful, but it distracts from the nicer flavors when brewed too quickly. To its credit, although it needs real pushing after the 5th infusion, it does hold up to many long infusions.

China Cha Dao - Da Hong Pao - brewed leaf

At the price, one could buy much worse, for certain. At an "everyday tea" price, it's an everyday tea. After brewing it gongfu, I wonder if using less leaf and longer steeps would be a better way to brew this particular tea.