Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tea with old man Tcheng

Old man Tcheng, he said (speaking directly to my bald-headed nitwit self):

I, old Tcheng, do not intervene to maintain, modify or change the course of things by following the desires of the individual mind. Let there be neither distrust nor revolt but only the necessary act.  If I behave in a different way with you, it is so that you might, at last, by yourself, directly see original spirit instead of always seeking it through the mediation of dead fellows or by running after scatterbrains like me.

My own manner, indeed, is to shake you like a sapling in the mountain wind.  Thus, I break up all your struts and props and, there you are, all undone, with nothing more to hold on to. But since I sap up all that you rely upon and, thus, you are filled with fear, you say, to reassure yourself, that I sin against the law and convention and am but a vile blasphemer. So you go on desperately clinging to appearance and accessories instead of letting them depart from you by themselves, without striving to hold onto them.

My words find no echo in you, so I play a trick on you and tell you they come from a great and famous fellow who has been dead for centuries. But you still do not understand that they are your direct and immediate concern. On the contrary, you seize on them as something precious, good for keeping and to cultivate. Bald-head, by holding onto your futilities, you simply waste your life away and the evidence of original spirit slips through your fingers. What a shipwreck for you!

Nitwit, original spirit does not appear when sleep leaves you and does not disappear when sleep comes to you. Original spirit is nothing and is totally independent of that which changes and dies.

If original spirit were truly your sole occupation, you would see all that alters and dies in the same way that you perceive the movements that dancers give to their streamers, and would resolve to constantly seek that which in you neither varies nor dies and , once you find it, then not one of the thousand worlds could divert you in your thoughts for the instant of a flash or in the slightest degree make you stray from it in your actions.

You believe you aspire to original spirit but you only actually seek the satisfaction of a condition, or learning, and of merit. Because of this, nincompoop, you are entirely under the fascination of all that in you and outside of you is not steadfast and just dies.

That is why the sayings of old Tcheng simply go through you without making an impression, like the birds which leave no trace in the sky.

Bald pate, all that you think and say concerning original spirit is but the erring and wandering of your own puny little mind. To that which nature spontaneously brings you, you respond only after interpretting it through all that you have placed on a pedestal above your head.

Baldy, this being as artificial as the dragons made for festivals, how can you hope to see original spirit in its spontaneity?

In my youth, I went all round the land giving myself up to study and practices. I associated with those who had strayed and, imagining they had found the light, did nothing but cause others to stray. Then, I met him who enabled me to see all the useless mud I bore with me. The way of truth appeared to me and original spirit became my sole occupation. And, one day, everything suddenly collapsed into awareness.

I, old Tcheng, do not imitate so and so, or such and such a one. I hold to no belief, no school of thought do I follow, no one’s disciple am I. In my true nature I know nothing, I own nothing, I am nothing… for there is no old Tcheng there! In the ordinary way, the things in which I take part, of themselves, just flow by, pass away on their own. Even original spirit is no longer my concern.

The words I speak to you come not from that which is learnt.

Shaved skull, I have hidden nothing from you. What profit is there for you? Nothing but stuff and nonsense!

Exit old man Tcheng

Thursday, November 10, 2011

1970's Da Ye Loose Leaf raw puerh

... or, why I love puerh.  It's been some time since I've sat with a puer (puerh, pu-erh, poo on this whole 'correct spelling' thing, you know what kind of tea I'm referring to), although my break from it was only partially intentional.  But the longer I stayed away, the more I wondered what I would find upon my return.  I finally broke my puerh-fast this morning with a pot of Essence of Tea's 1970's Da Ye Loose Leaf.

There are those who love puerh, and there are those who decidedly don't despite their love of other kinds of tea.  "Like drinking dirt," they say (probably not unlike my assessment of single malt scotch as "like drinking airplane fuel").  And even among puerh drinkers there are further sub-groups -- those who mostly drink young puer, those who only drink aged puer, those in search of a good investment, those in search of a good tea-high, etc.  My time away from puer has allowed me to learn some appreciation for other kinds of tea but has also left me wondering, just what is it exactly that makes puer so enjoyable (for me)?  Because yes, the "tastes like dirt/wood" assessment can't be denied in many cases, especially with older puer (although that doesn't mean it's a bad thing).  Such was the curiosity I brought to my tea session today.

the beautiful interior glaze of the cup 
The choosing of the tea and the tea cup (this morning's tea cup, my favorite to drink puerh from, one of Petr Novak's wood-fired beauties), the placement of the setting, the warming of the yixing pot and cup... all part of the enjoyment, and while this 'ritual' is not unique to drinking puer, I find that I naturally bring more awareness to these when drinking something aged and rare.  If it can be said that there is 'life' in these old dried leaves (and if one goal of drinking tea is to facilitate the expression of this life essence), then thoughtful attention of this sort is meaningful and purposeful and adds immeasurably to the experience.

The water boiled and poured into the pot for the first wetting.  The initial aroma is all storage and age.  It's a smell I've come to appreciate for the way it evokes deep, often unconscious memory.  This is part of the magic of good aged puer.  Now and then I'll have an actual articulable memory surface, but more often it's simply a palpable sense of connection to a vague and distant past which serves to ground my awareness at a deeper level than is usual in my waking day.  A great 'entrance' to a sitting with some very good tea.

A quick rinse and then patience and quiet as the leaves sit in the darkness of the warmed pot, pulling water into their inner spaces, activating what has lain dormant to new life.  What entered the pot as clear boiled water now pours into the cup, darkened with the first giving forth of the leaves.  Even before taking the first sip I'm treated to a heavenly sweet vanilla scent rising with the steam.  You just don't get scents like this from artificially flavored teas.  This kind of subtlety and complexity is something that can't be imitated.  Yet another reason why I love puerh.  And the fragrance now coming from the wetted leaves in the pot?  All overripe fruit mixed with good earth, rising warm and humid like a sleepy afternoon in the shade of an orchard tree on a late summer day (having grown up around orchards it's a memory-soaked scent I love).

Given the age of this tea I watch for the cloud feet.  They're there alright, barely moving on the surface, slowed with age, a contrast to the flashing, fast-moving cloud feet sometimes seen on younger teas.  I've been contemplating this matter of age lately.  The past-present-future.  Nondualists (and others) are fond of saying there is no actual substance to past or future, there is only the present; the now.  True enough.  And yet.  Is it just our mental constructs about age and past that make drinking aged puer a wholly different experience than young puer?  I don't have an answer to that, but it occurs to me that an aged puer is perhaps a long accumulation of nows.. traces of nows that have piled up like fallen autumn leaves, changing and decomposing into new expressions of what once was.

Although not all puerhs exhibit strong qi (and completely ignoring the debate on what qi is at all, not unlike the fussiness over puer/puerh/pu'er/etc), the best ones do exhibit "movement" in the body of the drinker, and this one is no exception.  Yet another reason for my love of good puer.  Just as aroma and taste vary from tea to tea (and from sitting to sitting even with a single tea), the qi that a tea exhibits is changeable, as well.  My experience with the Da Ye loose leaf this morning found a spreading warmth my chest and the faintest rise of perspiration to my temples and cheeks, causing a greater sensitivity to the slightest breeze in the air.  I welcome the enhanced awareness.  Does this mean someone else will experience this same phenomena when drinking this tea?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  There are so many factors at play.  No definable "best" or "right."  I can only speak to my own experience.  One man's "tastes like dirt" is another man's (or woman's) drink of bliss :)

Cultivate the beauty that draws you :)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Red Circle Tea's Ying De red tea

Red Circle Tea's Keemun red tea
Well, it's been quite some time, hasn't it?  I've been up to all sorts of tea mischief and sacrilege.  Although my love of puer is set in stone I've been sampling other kinds of tea more recently, feeling called to expand my knowledge and appreciation.  I've even been trying out flavored teas, curious to know what the experience of "vanilla jasmine" or "coconut pouchong" is like.  For the most part, I haven't enjoyed many of these flavored teas.  I find them one-dimensional with lots of (often cloying) aroma and very little taste.  But a few have made for fun "light" drinking, most notably some of the teas that Golden Moon Tea carries.  After trying many flavored teas from many companies, I think what makes Golden Moon's teas a notch better is that they begin with a higher quality leaf.  I was surprised to find nothing but whole beautiful leaves in my cup with their coconut pouchong.  They also strike a good balance with their flavoring elements.

But the tea I've been drinking a lot more of lately is red tea, or hong cha, which many Westerners regard as black tea.  Now I'm no expert on this type of tea.  I didn't grow up drinking English Breakfast tea and never developed a liking for the mainstay Lipton variety tea you find all over the US.  Rather, I'm coming to red tea with the mind and experience of a puer drinker, searching for depth and complexity and that certain wow-factor.  I've sampled plenty of red teas that remind me very much of what's generally known as plain old black tea here in the US.  They haven't impressed me.  I finally found something different, special and memorable in some of the red teas that Red Circle Tea carries.  Specifically, their Ying De red tea, which (not surprisingly) they report as their best-selling red tea.  It's a 2010 spring harvest red tea from the Guangdong region of China, and it's got plenty of wow.

I confess I didn't take notes on this tea while drinking it, and since I only ordered a sample I haven't had the chance to revisit it yet.  But when I find my mind haunted by the experience and taste of a certain tea, eliciting an ever-growing longing for it, I know I've hit on something good.  It had depth and complexity, with an intoxicating malty sweet berry fragrance and taste that dove deep.  I remember earlier this year when Brett Boynton (of Black Dragon Tea Bar and Phoenix Tea Shop) served me a similarly wonderful red/black tea that he was very impressed with, but at the time I was drinking puer exclusively and so didn't take him up on the offer of acquiring some.  My mistake.  I'm so happy to have found something very similar now in this Ying De tea.

a bit of golden halo on the Keemun red

Another Red Circle Tea I've been enjoying very much is their Keemun red tea, another 2010 spring harvest, this one from Anhui, China.  It seems that Keemun teas are a primary component of English Breakfast variety teas, and while I can detect a similarity in taste and aroma this tea strikes me as particularly noteworthy.  But remember!  I didn't grow up drinking English Breakfast and my few experiences with it (long ago) have all been from cheap store-bought tea bags.  So it's quite safe to say that I wouldn't know a good English Breakfast tea from a bad one.  All I'm going on here is what and how I've learned to appreciate tea from drinking puer, and I'm finding this Keemun tea is making for some very enjoyable tea sessions.

Speaking of puer, I see that Red Circle Tea has a small selection although I haven't sampled any.  Only one cake (cooked) and a few somewhat-aged loose leaf puerhs, along with a couple of bricks and a tuo.  At least they don't offer those little generic mini-tuos, and what they do offer is well-described with regard to year and quality.  In fact, I really like that all of their teas are shown with detailed descriptions and (so far as I can tell) spot-on tasting notes.  I even received a classy little "tea menu" with my sample order that I thought was a very nice touch.

One last tea-related update -- Chinese tea eggs!!  I love-love-love these and made up a batch for a potluck recently.  They turned out wonderfully.  The key (in my opinion) to tasty tea eggs is to let them soak in the tea liquid AT LEAST overnight.  Those "soak for a few hours" recipes just don't do it.  I like my tea eggs well-flavored!  Here's the recipe I use --

Chinese Tea Eggs

1 dozen eggs
1 1/2+ cup soy sauce (more if liquid needs replenishing after simmering)
3 star anise pods
a good-sized chunk of decent shu puer leaves (as if you were going to make a pot for two or three friends)
2 cinnamon sticks
1 Tb. sugar
a few whole cloves
a teaspoon of five-spice powder (just to be sure, although it's a repeat of the above ingredients, but like I said -- I like my tea eggs well seasoned!)

Boil the eggs in plain water for 3-5 minutes, enough to begin to solidify the the egg whites but not so long that you completely hard-boil them.  Remove from heat and place under cool running water just long enough to be able to handle them without burning your fingers.  Once they're cool enough to handle crack the shell of each egg individually using the back of a spoon.  You want to crack them pretty well so that the shells are lumpy and uneven but still attached to the inner membrane.  If you end up causing a few deeper cracks into the softly solidified egg whites then it's all the better (it allows the flavorful marinating liquid to really penetrate deeply).  Put the eggs back into the boiling pot with enough water to just barely cover them.  Add the rest of the ingredients and bring the pot to boiling again.  Once it's at boiling reduce heat to a simmer.  Cover the pot and let it simmer for about 40 minutes.  If you need to add more liquid, add additional soy sauce.  After 40 minutes of simmering let the eggs cool in the marinating liquid and then transfer to a large glass bowl to set in the refrigerator overnight (some people let them sit for two or three nights in the fridge).  Peel and enjoy :)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Yixing find

my small (but growing) collection
In this part of the country (maybe everywhere, I don't know) we have these places called "antique malls."  Its usually a very large building with rows and aisles of shelves and display cabinets in which anyone can rent a small space to sell their old items.  There are dozens (or even hundreds in very large buildings) of individual sellers with items for sale in any one 'mall.'  Its sort of like an enormous concentrated yard sale but without all the outgrown kids clothes and toys.  Inevitably, each seller's rented space tells a little story.  This person was a big collector of figurines, that person was probably a war veteran... I'm always curious about the stories behind the items on the shelves.

I was recently browsing through one of these antique malls when I came upon a small but interesting display cabinet.  Several shelves were full of paraphernalia from the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  Bright red stamps and booklets and commemorative coins, all with pictures of Chairman Mao.  Another shelf displayed a variety of fine porcelain pieces and an opium pipe.  Yet another shelf was stacked with a dozen large rolled up scrolls, some with fine calligraphy and others with beautiful paintings.  Although the price tags on these items seemed to reflect that the owner knew something of their worth, nothing seemed unreasonably expensive.

Of course, the item that caught my eye was a small yixing tea pot.  The knob of the lid was a carved goldfish and it sat on three more goldfish as the feet of the tea pot.  As I looked at it closely through the glass I could see that the workmanship, while nice, was not top quality.  The goldfish were a little crudely modeled, their eyes painted with a shiny black glaze.  The spout was slightly misshapen too, and was attached to the pot without smoothing down the seam.  I didn't buy it at that time but found myself thinking about it more and more as one week, then two went by.

It wasn't hugely expensive--well under $100--and given the quality and history of all the other items on the shelves from this particular seller, I started to think it might be a worthwhile purchase.  I decided to go back today to have another look.  The color of the clay was dark and purplish -- a good sign, I thought.  Of my small collection of tea pots, my best (and most expensive) pot is the one I purchased from Best Tea House in Richmond, BC.  It stands out from the others by its deep purple-brown color, and I remember that many of the high quality teapots that were for sale at BTH were that same dark color.  Looking again at the yixing in the antique mall I could see it was also a similar color.  Is that a guarantee of good quality?  I know better than to think that, but at least its an indication of the possibility.

I had the sales clerk remove it from the cabinet so I could handle it and take a closer look.  Everything was intact.  No chips or cracks.  The fit of the lid was perfect and snug.  The best surprise was when I opened it to look inside.  There was another little carved goldfish down in the bottom of the pot!  That's what clinched it for me.  High quality or not, it was just too cute to pass up at that price.  If only I knew something of the story behind this yixing and all the other items on the shelves.  There were clues, though.  On another shelf were about a dozen old photos.  The newest of them appeared to be taken in the 1940's or 50's given the appearance of the photos and the Western-style clothing worn by the very beautiful and fashionable Chinese women in them.  A few of the photos were portraits of what appeared to be highly decorated soldiers and men in uniform (Chinese).  Some of the photos were much older, showing pictures of what appeared to be very dignified Chinese men and women and families, all wearing very traditional and formal-looking dress.  I purchased two of the photos, shown here.  The lower picture of the group of men had the date "1885" on it.

I have no idea of the quality of this tea pot.  When I brought it home I noticed streaks of what looks like black ink or paint on it.  Had someone wiped it with a dark pigment to highlight the details of the goldfish, or maybe to make it appear older than it really was?  There was a curious silvery powder inside the pot too, that had accumulated around the carved goldfish and which had settled into the 7-hole screen.  I have NO idea what that would be from.  I tried to wipe off the black streaks with water but it didn't affect them at all.

As for the maker's marks, there's a well-defined stamp on the bottom of the pot and a not-so-well-defined stamp inside the lid.  I have no idea what they say or signify, but at least it didn't have "Made in China" anywhere :)   I asked the people who run the mall to give my name to the seller in the hopes that he'll contact me and maybe tell me something about the photos and the items he has for sale.  It seems a great shame to lose the stories of the people connected to these beautiful things.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

. . .

Wanderer, there is no path --
the path is made by walking.
Wanderer, there is no path --
only traces of foam upon the sea.

-- Antonio Machado

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

2009 Spring Jinggu Purple Bud Big Tree tuo

I’ve been drinking a lot of well-aged 20+ year puerh lately, and to dangerous levels (dangerous for my pocketbook, that is).  I love it so much but my mind has been prodding me to return again to younger sheng and not neglect the learning it can offer.  So it is that I sat down with this sample from Peak Pu-Er (also known as Summit Tea Company), the 2009 Jinggu Purple Bud Big Tree tuo, which comes packaged in a wild hot-pink technicolor box (if you buy the whole tuo) that looks straight out of 1971. 

(image from JK Tea Shop website)

You don’t read much about these Peak/Summit Company teas (at least not on the blogs I read) and I’ve often wondered why.  Though pricey they’re not the only producer asking these kinds of prices, and if they’re made with the kind of top-choice leaves and great care as they claim, then it’s no wonder they cost what they do.  But anybody can make claims like these and charge exorbitant amounts, so the real proof is in the pudding (or tea, in this case). J   These teas aren’t available through the usual well-known vendors, either.  I’ve only seen them for sale through JK Tea Shop, located in Guangzhou, China, and JAS eTea, in the US.

I’ll admit I wasn’t planning to sit with just one tea this morning.  I’ve got a bag full of Peak tea samples and given my current attitude toward younger sheng I figured I’d just slam through several in one session, paying more attention to feel than flavor and picking out any that might strike me as particularly strong in that way.  I’m still haunted by an incredible gushu maocha from the Jing Mai region that a friend gave me recently to try.  The hui gan was out of this world, coupled with a nice thick mouth feel, lots of activity, and good complexity of aroma and flavor.  It’s become the standard by which I now judge young sheng (but don’t quote me on this, I’m hardly qualified although I’ve cut my teeth some now).

Opening the sample bag of this tea I’m struck by the beauty of the offering.  Two perfectly perfect chunks from the tuo, featuring gorgeous glossy purplish-black buds and tips that look to be compressed with just the right amount of pressure.  Pretty indeed, but never judge a book by its cover, right?  I had little problem separating out about 7 or so grams of whole leaves, adding them to the gaiwan.  After a quick rinse the aroma is young, to be sure, but features more dry sharp fruit than is usual with a newer sheng.  Prior to my recent string of well-aged puerhs I’d been focusing on a series of different Lao Ban Zhang teas, so with that still in my memory I keep the first infusion short at 8 seconds (after only one rinse).  The aroma deepens this time, with some added savory, almost meaty notes.  The mouth feel is hugely thick and there’s a deep cooling to the throat, but the taste is extremely light and watery indicating that maybe it could stand a more aggressive steeping.

Second infusion, 20 seconds.  The aroma has pulled back considerably, although some caramel-like notes are added this time.  The taste remains light but with some honeyed fruitiness now and a faint bitterness at the very back of the tongue that soon spreads around the mouth and to the throat.  The mouth feel remains thick, and there’s a cooling sensation deep in the throat that seems to grow in intensity long after the sip.  There’s hui gan present as well, light but long-lasting.  The color of the tea is a dark clear yellow, leaning slightly toward brown.  But still, I’m thinking this tea needs a heavier hand in brewing.  I want to know what it has to give.

Third infusion, 50 seconds.  Yeah, I pushed this one and the tea finally responds with some bite, but the aroma remains subdued -- a young sheng new-mown hay scent with a floral quality and  added layers of high fruity notes and deeper honey and vanilla notes.  Sometimes I get the feeling that when the aroma pulls back like this it’s a possible indication that I’ve been too long with the infusion.  Or sometimes it’s just an indication of a weakness in the tea.  Hard to tell at this point which it is.  Once again this tea’s most notable qualities are a pronounced cooling down into the throat, a warmth deep in the chest and a light but long-lasting hui gan.  The mouth feel remains very thick.  With this infusion I also experience a sweet aftertaste to the flavor.  

Fourth infusion, 45 seconds.  Thinking I might have pushed the last infusion a bit far I try a little less with this one.  The aroma gains strength this time with good complexity and nuance, and the mouth feel is thicker than ever.  Did I just hit a sweet spot with infusion time?  I wonder.  The mouth activity is huge, leaving my mouth tingling and alive, nearly buzzing, with that recognizable clean feeling around the edges of the tongue.  Floral notes rise on the breath now and the kuwei, while present, plays nice and stays mostly behind the mouth activity.  The bitterness is definitely not as pronounced as a LBZ tea, but then I guess that’s to be expected.  The warmth that has been growing in the chest moves fully into the torso now, full of real strength, with a deep cooling to the throat that lingers long after the sip. 

Funny, I wasn’t finding this tea terrifically impressive with the first 3 infusions and was thinking it might be time to brew up another sample.  But that 4th infusion – wow, nice J

Fifth infusion, 60 seconds.  The aroma remains strong for this one.  It even has it’s own thickness due to the multiple layers of high and low notes.  Overall this infusion is much like the last, although perhaps a little bit less strong.  Probably the 4th infusion was the peak, as it often is.  I’m watching for the movement of qi now, which at this point seems to be staying low and full in the body.  Very different from the qi of an early 70’s puerh I drank yesterday, which tended to settle mostly in the head. 

I did several more infusions with this tea and it continued to be very enjoyable, maintaining a very thick mouth feel and offering good complexity and nuance, although more so in aroma than flavor.  The qi aspect continued to develop, eventually rising all the way to the head with a definite hot/yang quality to it.  Even several hours after drinking this tea I could still feel a pool of pronounced warmth in the belly.  Certainly a good “drink now” puerh, but will it age well?  I don’t enough to know.  If it’s true that puerhs which show strong, even aggressive flavors (along with all the other “how the tea feels” factors) while young are the best aging candidates, then this one might not do so well.  Clearly its strength is in the “feel” category and not so much in “taste.”  But in the matter of “feel” it has a lot going for it.  The taste wasn't bad at all, in fact quite nice, but not as strong and forthcoming as some others I've had.  Of course, having drank mostly LBZ teas in the recent past my viewpoint on this might be a little skewed.

Just as the dry compressed leaves made for a pretty picture, so do the spent leaves.  Nothing but healthy thick bud-tips present.  Not a single leaf or “chop” in sight.  

Thursday, July 21, 2011

雲腳, Feet of the Cloud

A fine mist is filling the air today in Seattle, making the air both crisp and full.  Quintessential northwest coastal weather.  My favorite kind of precipitation.

Today I'm enjoying a session with the 1980's Menghai Green Brick from The Mandarin's Tea Room.  A nicely aged puerh that's said to be a mixture of cooked and raw, although it tastes mostly like an aged sheng to me (which would make sense since that's what its primarily composed of).  Deep tobacco notes in the flavor and aroma with a pleasing hui tian arising here and there.  A beautiful mellowing cha qi, too, providing the perfect complement to the quietly falling mist outside.

Flower reflection in the 80's Menghai Green

Feet of the cloud on the 60's GYG
I recently learned about something I'd seen in some of the puerhs I drink.  Have you ever noticed a beautiful dancing pattern of fog or steam playing across the surface of the tea in your cup?  I first noticed it when drinking the 60's Guang Yun Gong that The Essence of Tea carries.  It was such an interesting and beautiful sight that I took a series of photos of it, although at the time I had thought it was just the play of steam on the surface of the tea and nothing more.  It turns out there's a name for this phenomenon, "feet of the cloud," and the reason why I've only seen it a few times is that it's something only well-aged teas exhibit.  Apparently, as a puerh ages and continues to ferment and mature, the particles of the tea leaf get broken down to finer and finer degrees.  Eventually they become so fine that they rise with the steam, settling just above the surface of the tea soup, floating on what I'm guessing are unseen currents of heat and air (if anyone can speak to this more knowledgeably, please do!).  Starting at about 20 years of age you can begin to see this dancing pattern of fog on the surface of the tea.  I watched for the cloud feet this morning as I drank the 80's Menghai and did see it, although it was fleeting and fickle, only flashing across the surface briefly here and there, looking very much like footprints of clouds running across the surface.  By contrast, the cloud feet of the 60's GYG was significantly more pronounced, staying a long time on the surface of the tea soup as it slowly moved about in the most beautiful patterns.  Truly fascinating to watch.

Dried longan fruit.. mmmmm....
My friend Michael Fung, whom you "met" in the last post and is the proprietor of Canada's Best Tea House, recently did an interview on Canadian Chinese television.  Unfortunately for me, the interview is in Chinese (although the conversation is sprinkled with English words and phrases), but I know some of you might be able to understand it.  And anyway, it's still fun to watch (I think so anyway).  The link is here.  The two-part interview is found at the top, next to the picture of the woman in a red snow jacket standing in front of a bright pink star, episode (or set) 44, from July 17.  Toward the latter half of the second part of the interview Michael talks about using tea in food and cooking.  I'm definitely going to try the sauteed shrimp with green tea -- yum!  The tea-stained eggs are beautiful, too.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Best visit, best hosts, Best Tea House

The other side of the store is just as full of interest
After many gracious and educational email notes, I finally hopped in my car for a long-awaited day trip north to meet Michael Fung, proprietor of the Richmond B.C. branch of The Best Tea House.  It couldn't have been a more enjoyable trip.  Even our cold, dreary Northwest weather cooperated and filled the day with sunshine.  After a delicious lunch, where I also had the pleasure of meeting Michael's wife, Patricia, we headed to the tea shop.  I was eager to see it and was not disappointed.  Although the square footage is small, its filled with more tea and teaware than I ever would have imagined.  Every square inch of shelving holds a treasure, all neatly arranged and interspersed with small, healthy potted plants (a nice touch, thanks to Patricia's way with plants).  Instead of feeling overcrowded or overwhelming, perusing the shelves was more like an exciting treasure hunt, with baskets and stacks of enticing goodies tucked in among the beautiful teaware and tea, not unlike the candy store analogy that MarshalN has used for his own favorite tea shop (although I didn't get to go in the back and dig through huge boxes of mysterious tea packages, lucky guy).

One thing I hadn't expected to see was the great selection of yixing teapots!  They ranged from modestly priced to rare antiques.  It was a real treat to examine them all.  Michael took the time to show me all the really special ones he kept in one of the locked cases.  Of his more moderately priced ones, he told me most were manufactured in the 1980's when good yixing clay was still readily available.  As many of you know, a serious tea habit often leads to new addictions in the form of collecting good teaware.  My yixing collection, while still very small, is slowly but surely starting to grow.  I've been wanting to find a good quality yixing that's well-suited for aged puerh, and there couldn't have been a better opportunity.  Michael pulled out several from his collection that he felt would suit my needs, all of them made from the very dark purplish variety of zisha clay.  I'm thrilled with my new yixing!  It's a great little pot and I've been diligently using it every day now.  Hopefully I'll get around to dedicating a blog post about my experience with it.

No visit to a good tea shop is complete without sampling some tea, and Michael treated me very well, starting with a session of the renowned 88 Green.  I watched carefully as he prepared and brewed it, learning a great deal just from that, but the best tip (well, one of the best) was watching him pry leaves from the cake with the puerh pick.  So THAT'S how you do it!  I'm embarrassed to say how many times I've drawn blood trying to work the pick in from the side.  Nice to know that puerh drinking doesn't have to be such a bloody sport!  :)

"Always two rinses," Michael said, although he was always quick to point out (in his typically humble way) that this is just the way he does things and not some kind of "expert rule."  With well-aged puerh he rinses once (just in-and-out with the water) and then puts the lid on the yixing to let the leaves sit inside the warm moist cavity for a minute or two before giving it a second quick rinse.  This allows the old leaves to swell and rehydrate, he explained, preparing them to give their best.  I've tried this a few times since our meeting and I must say it really makes a difference.  With younger sheng he doesn't do the "letting it sit in the yixing" part.  In fact, he doesn't use a yixing for younger sheng, at all.  If the puerh is ten years or younger he brews it with a gaiwan.  He also mentioned he likes to match the age of the yixing with the age of the tea, although he gave a big laugh when he said this, again noting it was just the way he liked to do things and not a rule you have to follow for good tea.

The 88 Green was marvelous.  Full and rich, flavorful and active.  I noticed whenever he reboiled the water (every few steepings) he would add fresh water to the kettle.  "Keeps the water active and alive," he said.  Yet another tip I've put to good use since our visit that has had noticeable results.  I asked him all the big water questions -- what kind of water did he use?  What about additives like bamboo charcoal or minerals?  etc.  But I'm coming to find that the matter of water really just boils down (oy, pun..) to one's own individual location and tastes.  He had worked out the best water for his style of brewing and region, and while he had a few suggestions for me it's really up to me to find what's available in my area and what tastes best to me.  I guess I knew this already, but there's always the hope for that One True Answer (the perennial slippery slope).  But I'm inspired once again to do more water experiments now that my palate is more experienced (also, no small thanks to Mattcha's recent and very informative series on water, starting here).  

seat of honor
After the 88 Green he asked what I'd like to try next (and no, I didn't blurt out "Blue Mark!" although I can't promise it didn't cross my mind).  Not long ago I picked up a 2006 Ban Zhang cake from him and have been trying to perfect my brewing of it, seeing if I could bring out more sweetness while taming some of that assertive bitterness.  He suggested it would be informative for me to sample an older Ban Zhang tea to learn what a bit more age would do, so next he prepared something he called the 2001 Bok Choy (which I don't believe is for sale), named so for the picture of a bok choy in the center of the wrapper.  But the power of suggestion got hold of me and soon I was tasting distant hints of bok choy in the tea, which drew a hearty laugh from Michael and a comment on my "good imagination!"  I so love the good humor of tea people!   :)   The Bok Choy was undoubtedly my favorite tea of the visit.  Both bitter and plenty sweet, with the most incredible aroma, and considerably more put-together than my 2006 cake, which is still very much like a feisty young boy.  As we talked about the characteristics of Ban Zhang teas Michael made a great analogy.  He likened the mouth activity of Ban Zhang to the cha cha, whereas the experience of a Yi Wu tea is more like a waltz.  With Ban Zhang teas you get different flavors and sensations coming at you quickly, changing abruptly in the mouth, here-there-and-back-again, making for a lively tea experience.  With a Yi Wu tea the flavors and activity also change and develop but with more smooth transitioning, leading more of an "ahhhhh, nice" reaction than an "oh! oh! wow!"  Both good, just different.

all the goodies I came home with

Being the fragrance lover I am, I asked Michael if he ever used an aroma cup.  "Never for puerh," he said, but he does when tasting oolongs.  I was surprised to hear this and was puzzling over it when he handed me the freshly emptied fairness pitcher, which puzzled me even more!  I had no clue what I was supposed to do with it or why he was even handing it to me.  Noting my cluelessness (hard not to miss!) he showed me how to hold the pitcher under my nose to take in the aromas.  Like other things I learned from him this day I've been incorporating this into my practice at home, as well.  Enjoying aroma in this way has a lot of advantages over the aroma cup.  No fussing with little cups (which always used to burn my fingers) and you get to enjoy those heavenly evaporative fragrances throughout the whole session and not just one time at the start.  Yes, there's always the yixing lid to offer some of this, but using the fairness pitcher in this way is superior I think, in that the shape of the pitcher naturally funnels the aromas in a particular direction, especially if you hold the cup like Michael showed me (I'm kicking myself now that I didn't get a photo of this, sorry).  Essentially, the pitcher is held nearly sideways by the handle, with the handle below and the opening held just under the nose.  It takes a bit of practice to locate the upward flow of aroma and hold it under your nose just right, but once its there its full of reward.  The 2001 Bok Choy was truly amazing when appreciated this way (and all the other ways, too)!

Michael and Patricia Fung, valued friends :)
What a wonderful visit this was!  I think we were all surprised to look at the clock and find several hours had ticked away in what seemed like a much shorter time.  It was a particularly notable day for me, being the first time I've shared tea with someone so knowledgeable about puerh.  I haven't mentioned Patricia much, but she was present as well, offering her valuable insights from a lifetime of immersion in tea culture, as well as her immensely enjoyable company.  I'm so happy to have made tea friends such as these, and I look forward to many more visits.  :)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

2009 Denong Wild Ripe puerh, revisited

In keeping with other excellent tea blogs, I'll add my latest tasting notes to the original posting, here (scroll down to the end of the post to find the updated review).

Sunday, June 12, 2011

2004 101 Tea Plantation Commemorative Tea Cake

From a low quality puerh (in the last post) to a much higher quality one.  The exact name of this tea is... well, for someone who doesn't read Chinese that's hard to say, but fortunately the box this comes in includes English on the back.  "Thousand Year Old Tea Plantation's Commemorative Tea Round" appears to be the official designation, although it's also referred to simply as "101 Ancient Tea" (and "101 Years Old Tree" on the vendor's website, The Best Tea House, Vancouver branch).

The 101 Tea Plantation is a US-invested tea factory based in Jing Mai, which might explain the English on the box and also the extensive (also in English) website here, which I have appreciated.  101 Plantation produces a lot of tea, much of it wholesaled to worldwide markets and all of it certified organic according to European, American and Japanese standards.  This particular cake is one of their high quality productions, produced to commemorate a business partnership between the 101 Tea Plantations company and the Lan Cang government, picked specifically from their oldest tea plantations on Jing Mai and Mang Jing mountains.  According to the box they "selected only the choicest leaves from our over 1000 year old trees" to make these cakes.  Although I haven't been able to verify that the leaves are 100% from 1000 year old trees, it's certain that these cakes are 100% gu shu leaves from trees at least a few hundred years old to perhaps a small portion of the oldest leaves.

I picked this cake up from The Best Tea House, Vancouver branch.  Michael Fung is the owner and has tremendous knowledge about tea and puerh in particular.  Although the website lists prices for whole cakes only, I know they also sell sample size portions of all but their oldest and priciest teas.  Contact the store to inquire.

I've spent the past two weeks sampling this tea in different ways, trying to "listen" to it.  Gaiwan and yixing, varying temperatures, varying infusion times, varying proportions of tea leaves to water.  When using fewer grams of leaves to water, this tea is filled with a beautiful floral delicacy.  One of the most floral puerhs I've ever had.  Upping the amount of leaves, though, produces a liquor with surprising strength and a far-reaching ku wei that lasts and lasts.  Given that every session with this tea produced different results in terms of taste and aroma (thanks to my fussing around with parameters), it would be silly for me to give one of those infusion-by-infusion reports.  But there were certain consistencies I can tell you about.

Mouth feel.  The liquor is rich and thick, leaving the mouth feeling coated in velvet.  As the infusions increase in number the mouth feels thins out a bit, but my sessions with the 101 always began with a mouth full of "sumptuous" (the word I found myself using over and over in my notes).

Strength.  This tea has a great deal of assertiveness, evidenced in taste by a ku wei that will grab you hard if you're not careful.  This was part of the reason I spent some time with this one, trying it in different ways.  This is a tea that will test your brewing abilities.  The strength of the ku wei goes deep into the body and as a result pulls both perspiration and salivation, but also moves into a full-body mellowness as an expression of qi.

"That clean sensation."  There's probably a Chinese term for this that I don't know yet because I find this particular characteristic present in most high quality puerh.  You might say it's when you keep tasting a tea for hours (sometimes even a day or more) after drinking it, but it's not really a describe-able taste so much as a sensation of cleanliness, most noticeably throughout the mouth.  It's extremely pleasant and the more I experience teas that have this characteristic, the more I want to drink them.

Leaf quality.  One of the most impressive things I discovered about the 101 was when I examined the spent leaves.  They were big and beautiful, with plenty of whole strong-spined leaves and very little chop.  In fact, the dry leaves were just as much fun to examine since they separated easily and fully whole from the cake.  Every curled twisted dry leaf from the cake would fully expand in the tea water, expressing itself completely.  Sometimes I've had teas where the leaves seemed reluctant to open, but not this one.

I was told that the 101 is currently working through a changing period in it's aging process, and as I sampled it on different days I wondered what might be it's weaker points and how another few years of aging will change it.  Although there was hui gan present, it wasn't as strong as other teas I've tried.  I wonder if that might change with a few years' time?  There were a couple other points about this tea that I made note of in my journal and which I'll be watching with interest when I try this again in the coming years.  The whole matter of how a puerh ages is a fascinating one, and those who have a lot of experience with puerh will tell you it's not a simple straight-line graph from "green and astringent" to "woody-sweet mellowness."  Tea goes through periods or maybe 'stages' as it ages, and it seems the 101 will offer a good window into how a puerh works through one of these periods.  I hope to update this blog entry as I try it again in the coming years.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Anatomy of a low quality pu-erh

It wasn't all a loss this morning.  I started my session with a pot of the 2007 Douji "Six Ancient Tea Mountain", which is a very fine tea for it's age.  It was my first big purchase of multiple cakes and I'm glad to have picked up as much as I did.  I drink it frequently and it never disappoints.  In fact, I think it tastes even better in the yixing, and the cha qi of this one is truly excellent.  A great tea for meditation.

But my restlessness was tugging at my sleeve again, so after exhausting the Douji I pulled out random cake from the shelves.  It was a Taobao purchase of this cake, said to be from 2005, made from "ancient" Wu Yi leaves, and stone pressed.  Did I really think it was all that?  Well, for the price of 22 yuan, no.  But it made for some pretty pictures on the Taobao page so I added a cake of it to my order.  A small price to pay for a little education.

True to the Taobao page this beeng is (initially) good looking, covered both front and back with large long ropey leaves.  But like they say, never judge a book by it's cover.  My first clue that something was amiss came when I tried to pry off some leaves for the pot.  This cake was rock hard!  Had to get the knife out.  The next surprise was what was revealed inside.  Just under the top layer of pretty ropey leaves was a dense solid mass of dried tea leaves.  It almost looked like the leaves had been pulverized before being compressed.  No matter how carefully I worked my knife to get into it, I ended up with mostly finely crumbled bits, almost powdered.  Stone pressed?  I think not.  Not unless they used a 300-lb rock!  Although I don't know enough to say for sure, it seemed to me that a smaller cake had been pressed first (with machine?) made from fannings and very small bits, and then this smaller well-compressed disc had been covered with larger prettier leaves and maybe then put into a stone press.  That's just my guess.

I was actually eager to taste this one, believe it or not, and tried to keep an open mind despite the inauspicious start.  I knew I was in for a lesson.  I rinsed and used an aroma cup to start.  It smelled blandly green with just a faint hint of sugars.  Next, a 6-second infusion -- it tasted like sour water.  I bumped up the second infusion to 30 seconds.  Again, sour water with a little bit of tea-flavor to it.  The third infusion I tried a full minute, but again the tea fell flat on my tongue with little taste, little aroma, and nothing going for it.  As I sipped I had the unpleasant experience of finding gritty bits of dirt in my mouth, so I decided to chuck this one and chalk it up to a good lesson.

Thanks to the many good folks who blog and post about their tea experiences (not to mention those tea vendors who offer well-chosen quality teas) I've had the good fortune to taste some very good tea.  Some are truly excellent while others are just decent.  But it can be argued that without the lows one cannot appreciate the highs.  Without darkness one cannot be conscious of light.  So it is with tea.  And so it is I find myself thankful even for this unimpressive little hockey puck of a pu-erh.  :)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Two generations of one special tea

chubby new yixing pot
I find myself drinking a LOT of tea lately.  Part of this is due to impatience.  If I sit down with a new sample and it doesn't impress me quickly I pull out one or two more to try.  But more often I'll find myself trying a new puerh and thinking, "Oh, this one reminds me of the X tea from Y factory" and so I'll pull that one off the shelf and do a side-by-side tasting.  It's actually been very educational and a great way to further develop the palate (not to mention helping me justify all this tea I'm collecting!).  

I want to write a bit about a taste-compare I did the other day with the 1996 Truly Simple Elegant and a tea that's marketed as the "2nd generation" of this renowned tea, the 2003 Green Snow Manor (or Hut, as I've also seen it advertised).  But first a bit about my new yixing purchase.  After simmering it in the TongQing Longma last week it smelled heavenly and I've been drinking more shu than I normally do in an effort to really break it in.  But I'm finding some annoyances with this new teapot.  It pours in spurts, and despite tipping it this way and that to try to empty it of tea after a steeping it's still left with a puddle of tea at the bottom of the pot.  The only explanation for this is the type of filter inside the pot.

New yixing on the left, my old stand-by on the right

It's a ball filter, and if you look closely you'll see that the filter holes are set a short distance away from the inside surface of the pot.  This would explain why I keep finding extra tea water in the bottom of my pot between steepings.  The matter of the flow of the pour is another issue.  My old teapot, with nine holes pierced into the actual body of the pot (on the right above) pours wonderfully.  When I tip it on it's side the tea flows out smoothly, taking about 7-8 seconds to pour, eventually slowing to a few drips.  To empty the pot fully I just give it a few shakes.  Very simple.  But this ball-filtered new pot is a bit different.  I can't just tip the pot sideways to pour like with my other one.  If I do I get lots of tea coming out from under the lid and the pour comes out in uneven spurts.  Instead, I have to be more careful with this one, only tipping it partially to start the pour and gradually rotating it to finish.  As a result, the total pour time is a bit longer, about 9-10 seconds.  I also wonder how much this slower pour has to do with the smaller holes.

So, onto the teas.  The 2003 Green Snow Manor (GSM) is said to be the 2nd generation of the Truly Simple Elegant, picked from the very same trees.  Although I don't know for sure, I'm guessing this means the trees weren't picked in the seven years between the manufacture of the two cakes, but I could be wrong.  One thing's for sure, the GSM's price is significantly inflated thanks to it's provenance.

I knew it wasn't completely fair to be comparing the two outright.  Not only is there a 7-year difference in age but the TSE has some unique characteristics that would be hard to repeat, like leaves from trees that hadn't picked for decades  So I wasn't expecting them to taste the same, but I was interested to see if I could detect how they were related.

Initial rinses and pours were predictable, with the GSM showing a more solid yellow soup compared to the orange-amber color of the TSE.  The aromas from the GSM were also more characteristic of it's youth, with bright fruit notes mixed with green hay.  The TSE, by comparison, was clearly aged.  Deep woods and leathers with very little fruit, although it also had an aroma I came to call "violet."  Not fruity and not quite floral, but deeply perfumed in a purple-ish sort of way (if that makes any sense).  As the steepings grew in number I kept trying to find hints of the TSE in the GSM, but couldn't locate any, and I just don't have enough knowledge of how puerh ages to know whether or not the GSM was just a younger version of the TSE that would someday grow more like it, or if it would never hope to match it.

GSM on the left, TSE right
As in previous tastings of the TSE, the tea was terrifically powerful.  While the tea is hot it tastes of pure clean water which might leave you wondering what the fuss is all about, but it quickly becomes apparent as the strength of this tea permeates your body, pulling salivation, bringing perspiration, perfuming the breath, not to mention the full-body qi.  As the tea soup cools though, it displays perfumed woody notes and a deep bitter quality (the good kind), as though you're tasting it from deep inside your body.  While there was no comparison between the TSE and GSM in terms of aroma or taste, I then tried to focus on this matter of 'feeling.'  But once again, there was simply no comparison.  I even tried to trick my mind at one point, trying to convince myself that the TSE had less strength and the GSM more strength, but there was no denying it.

In the end I learned only that these teas, despite their connection of source of leaves and processing, are two very different puerhs.  The TSE is clearly special and unique, but if I was served a variety of 2003 shengs, including the GSM, I would be hard pressed to pick it out of the crowd.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shu surprise

"If you look at things with different lights you see different things."
-- from the Archimedes Palimpsest Project website

Gotta love that quote.  Even though it's referring to something very technical and modern (specifically, the digital imaging techniques used to photograph the palimpsest) it echoes an old Hindu story about three beings who drank from the same river -- one was a god, and he drank ambrosia; one was a man and he drank water; the third was a demon and he drank filth.  I find such wisdom in this.

And what does Archimedes have to do with tea?  Well, it was something of a working day for me (in many respects), which included seasoning a new yixing pot I recently acquired.  I've decided to dedicate this one to shupu while keeping the other for sheng.  So, with dark shu in my mind and things to get done, I sat down to drink just that.  Knowing it would be a long day I bypassed my usual quiet mindful approach to tea and set up the laptop for work, doing my best to ignore the quiet grumblings of ghosts of long-dead tea masters.

While the new teapot was simmering in it's first hot water bath I debated on which of my ripe teas I would add for the tea soak.  I'd love to christen it with my favorite (Bana's Tang Xiang, which was discussed here), but that's a pricey and precious tea for this purpose.  So as I read about heroic conservators and medieval inks I sampled a few different shus.  First up was part of a sample I picked up based on an encouraging review from Mattcha's blog, an 80's ripe puerh from Menghai Tea Factory.  It sounded like it held a lot of promise, but unfortunately I wasn't able to get quite the same pleasure from it that Matt did (yet another humbling tea lesson).  It wasn't a bad tea, but I found it heavy and dominant with deep earth notes (after the initial musty storage aspects subsided) and was only minimally able to detect some of the same creamy cocoa sweetness Matt had found.  It was just plain hard for me to listen past the very strong earth-wood notes of this one (which aren't bad but I like a broader profile), and it wasn't long before I was digging through my tea collection to see what else I could find.

I don't have a lot of ripe puerh, and the majority of what I do have was purchased earlier this year from an ebay vendor who was selling some interesting cakes for next to nothing.  Up until now I'd only tried one of the pieces I bought from him, a tuocha listed simply as "2000 Yunnan Wild Old Tree."  It turned out to be a rather disturbing tea drinking experience as it left my mouth and throat pulsing with a very strong distasteful chemical/metallic tingling that lasted well over a day.  I was sure I'd ingested god-knows-what carcinogens (probably something banned in the US, likely manufactured by Monsanto and sold overseas for a bloated profit).  I eventually tossed it in the trash.  So I haven't been too motivated to try any more of this seller's teas, but decided to give some a go today.

I promise I wrapped that cake on the left better when I put it back on the shelf
I picked out a couple of Tong Qing cakes, the 2003 Longma Tong Qing (left in the photo) and the 2005 Bainian Tong Qing (right).  I started with the 2003 Longma.  The cake was densely compressed and hard to break apart and it had this curious little red and gold string stuck within the pressed leaves.  Initially I thought it must be something that had accidentally fallen in when the cake was being compressed, but after finding the same red and gold string in the other cake I'm guessing this must be a signature of Tong Qing cakes (I welcome any information/education/enlightenment on the matter!).  I loaded up the tea pot, gave it a rinse and went to take in the aroma.  Mmmmm!  Sweet spices mixed with the distinct fragrance of blackberries.  It smelled fantastic!  The typical earthy-woody notes were also present but they played a lesser supporting role and didn't dominate like they had with the Menghai 80's shu I'd had before.  As I prepared several infusions of this tea the blackberry and spice themes prevailed, joined by soft butter, sugar and unsweetened cocoa notes, all balanced on a gentle foundation of wood and earth (and lacking any mustiness).  It reminded me a lot of the Tang Xiang but with a heavy dose of blackberry.

Taste/feel-wise, this one continued to shine.  At one point I steeped it a little too aggressively which resulted in something that tasted a lot like black coffee (which is fine by me), but the bitterness stayed mellow and never puckering.  The flavors were all deep woods with plenty of sweet around the edges.  Another thing this tea exhibited was that sensation of "clean" I've come to appreciate in certain puerhs.  It pulled plenty of salivation from my mouth and just seemed to permeate a sense of "good clean water" throughout.  I also noticed a nice cooling sensation down into my chest as I drank it.  Lastly, I was impressed by the qi this one had.  Very strong but in a good way.  It left me mellowed and clear and in a good space.  I was reluctant to put it aside to sample the third and last of the shus I'd chosen for the day, but I was curious to know if the other Tong Qing would shine, as well.

Although I was pulling for the 2005 Tong Qing Bainian it just wasn't up to the challenge.  The Longma was a hard act to follow.  This Bainian still did admirably though, opening much like the 80's Menghai I'd started with.  Lots of wood and earth dominated, with sweet notes underneath (in this case apricot) and leather, though it thankfully lacked the musty storage elements that the 80's Menghai had.  One of it's downsides was an aroma that seemed fleeting, tapering off quickly to not much.  Like the Longma it did a good job of pulling salivation to my mouth.  It seemed a bit more penetrating as well, although I wasn't sure why.  All morning I'd been thinking about that chemical-laced tuo which also had a penetrating quality, although the penetration in that case felt very definitely suspicious.  With the Bainian I wondered if there might be some chemical action going on, as well.  Not that it was anything like that scary tuo, but now that I've got more experience with puerh... well, I just wonder.  Another characteristic the Bainian had in terms of 'feel' was a curious thickness in the throat.  It also possessed a noticeable qi, but unlike the Longma this one had more of a jittery-buzz quality to it.

(remnants of a boil-over there.. thank god for soapstone countertops)
When the time came to simmer my new yixing in a tea soak I ended up filling it with the 2003 Longma, throwing in my collected fannings to round out the brew.  Soon the kitchen was filled with spicy blackberry jam-like goodness.  As the pot simmered the aroma continued to deepen and transform.  The sweet berry notes gradually turned savory with a terrific richness and depth, smelling just like sauteed mushrooms.  I kept revisiting the stove just to take in the smell.  Is it any wonder I've got sauteed mushrooms planned for dinner tonight?  Soooo good :)