Sunday, January 30, 2011

Essence of Tea 2010 Nan Nuo

You're probably thinking I've been soaking myself in that 2007 Douji I wrote about in the last post.  Sadly, that's not the case.  Instead of sipping tasty teas I've been laid out with steaming mugs of Theraflu.  *bleh*  But I roused myself this morning for another lovely tea session.  Today's tea of choice is a sample sent to me by The Essence of Tea -- a bit of their 2010 Nan Nuo.

mmm.. I guess this is what they mean by "tea porn."  What's not to like about those furry, meaty, ropey leaves?  Really a couple of lovely chunks in my sample packet.  Upon opening the envelope I was greeted with plenty of green aroma but expected as much given the recent pressing.  The cake was nicely compressed, coming apart easily with just a little encouragement from my fingers.  The leaves still had some pliability to them which I'm assuming is due to the newness of the cake.

I continued with my water experiments for this session, brewing up two separate gaiwans.  On the right below is plain tap water and on the left is a brand of bottled water called Crystal Geyser, said to be "alpine spring water, bottled at the source."  Unlike the Fiji water there's no information about mineral content other than a vague reference that it contains trace minerals, but similar to the last experiment the bottled water pulled more color (plus taste and mouth feel) from the leaves --

The initial taste showed bitter at first but soft on the tongue.  A pleasing lightly slippery quality to it.  The bitter note was more rounded with the Crystal Geyser water, with some butter in the nose and taste.  The mouth feel is again slippery and full.  The tap water tea is much thinner by comparison, with a more one-dimensional taste. As I poured the second infusion with the Crystal Geyser water (10 seconds for the first, 12 seconds for the second) the air filled with a floral aroma.  The fragrance from the wet leaves confirmed it.  The soup and leaves with the tap water on the other hand showed only hay and grasses.

Clearly the tap water does little to enhance my teas so I won't go on and on about how it doesn't measure up.  We'll just stick with the tasting notes from the bottled water.  This 2010 EoT Nan Nuo kept me interested with some bite and roughness on the top of my tongue and mouth, but kept things nicely balanced.  Never overwhelming.  The floral quality in the aroma returns again on my breath, in the nose and throat.  The tea has a penetrating quality to it, warming my upper chest.  I even felt quite perspire-y as the session lengthened but I can't really say if it was the tea or my flu-addled condition.

By the fifth infusion the aromas in both gaiwans were starting to settle.  The tap water experiment finally started to reveal some floral notes while the bottled water one seemed to maybe give off hints of what the future might hold with a bit more age.  I had fun pulling out a sampling of the spent leaves.  A few tips, a few stems, with plenty of leaves of varying size and maturity, including some thicker meatier ones with strong spines --

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

2007 Douji "The Six Ancient Tea Mountain"

"Whatever occurs externally as the manifold appearance of the five types of external objects (forms, sounds, smells, tastes and tangibles) or internally as some mental activity, at the very moment of its inception as a field it is seen just as it is, and by the force of its advent it is fully potentiated and then vanishes by itself--how could it possibly remain?--released without a trace, and in that moment the three crucial functions--carefree detachment in whatever arises, access to wide-open spaciousness, and easy relaxation into the appearance upon its inception--are assimilated."

-- Longchenpa (1308 - 1363)

Yes. It's that good. But don't take my word for it. I am in no way an expert on tea. I'd only heard rumors that Douji was one to pay attention to. The ebay vendor China Cha Dao has a nice selection and I was lured by the "gold award" this particular tea was granted at a big competition. Seemed like a logical place to start my Douji inquiry and I am blessed this morning to have experienced what this tea has to offer.

I used the remaining Fiji bottled water I have for this morning's session. I still have much to learn about water and tea but thankfully not so much attachment that I can't enjoy what I have. There is plenty of time ahead of me (with many thanks to those who have pointed the ways I can further my understanding).

This 2007 Douji greeted me first with a warm fragrant welcome of leather. I felt suddenly nostalgic for a time long ago. Immediately following the leather fragrance were soft buttery notes with fruit just around the edges. The liquor pours a distinct peachy yellow hue, though my picture above doesn't capture the almost-pinks that were evident. As I pour the first infusion I find another surprise in the fragrance rising in the steam, aromas reminiscent of a Chinese herb shop, particularly five-spice powder (noting the echo of "five" in the Longchenpa quote above). I haven't even had my first sip and I'm thoroughly delighted thus far.

Let's see... wonderful fragrances, well-balanced, with fruit notes well tamed and kept in harmony with soft wood. Plenty of nuance and complexity. More than I care to twist and contort my words around. The taste is just as delightful. Suggestions of butter cream in the mouth and surprisingly none of the more common youthful aspects of astringency or boisterous ku. This tea presents itself as though it has many more years of wisdom than it's true age denotes. All that I've said thus far suggests a very fine sheng indeed, but what launches this tea into the category of exceptional is the cha qi I experienced with it.

Now, it could be that I was simply in a particularly contemplative mood this morning. I'd been mulling over the Longchenpa quote even before deciding which tea to drink. But my sense is it wasn't all due to the state of mind I brought to the table. I experienced this qi initially with the sensation of deep cleansing as it penetrated my mouth and throat, producing a clean salivation and hui gan. By the third infusion it was clear this tea possessed a very strong qi. Thankfully, this wasn't one of those knock-you-over-the-head, "Hey look, I'm tea drunk" experiences. Rather, this was a quiet and deep penetration into an inner stillness. A perfect meditation tea. In fact I pretty much had no choice in the matter. The invitation to sit quietly, take my time and let go into the stillness was happily unavoidable. There was no rushing this tea. I am swimming in deep gratitude for this wonderful tea. I even found myself tasting and eating the leaves and enjoying them very much. I often eat the spent leaves of green tea, but puerh leaves are more of a challenge, often too bitter so as to overwhelm the drinking of the tea. But these leaves, while containing pronounced ku, provided a perfect counterpoint to the smoothness of the tea soup. An added treat.

Monday, January 24, 2011

An experiment with water

I've been putting off doing this. I knew what the results would probably be and the thought of going through the hassle and expense of using special bottled water for my tea sessions pained me. But I'm dabbling in some mighty nice tea now and it can't be ignored any longer. Time to figure out just what effect different types of water has on the taste and experience of pu-erh.

What finally prompted me on this path are some samples I ordered from Stephane of TeaMasters who is widely regarded as having a particularly fine selection of teas. I've been disappointed to find myself unable to appreciate much about them and have been wondering how much is due to my immature palate and how much might be due to the water I've been using (tap water). I'm also curious about the kettle I'm using to boil the water in, but that will have to wait for another experiment. Stephane has a lot of great information on his blog about the effect of water and kettle and other parameters. I'm learning a lot from him.

For today's experiment I boiled tap water in one kettle and a brand of bottled watered called Fiji water in another kettle, brewing up two separate tea sessions side by side. In the pictures above and below the cups on the left are using the Fiji water and the cups on the right are with tap water. Clearly the Fiji water brings out more color in the soup, with a deeper orange hue. Taste and mouth feel was also much improved with the Fiji water. It had a much creamier quality to it. Thicker. The Fiji water tea also proved far more active in the mouth. More penetrating. More hui gan. The tap water tea, in comparison, was far more watery and flat.

Another interesting observation was found in the aroma of the leaves in the gaiwan. The tap water brought out lots of high overripe fruit notes in the leaves, while the leaves from the Fiji water tea had a much more balanced and refined aroma. Also, there was more of a classic pu-erh aroma with the Fiji water with plenty of woody notes and complexity. The aromas from the tap water tea tended toward occasional off-smells and just seemed more unsettled overall.

I've got a few different brands of bottled water I want to try out. I've also read of some people finding improvement by using home-filtered tap water with the addition of a few drops of trace minerals. I also want to play a little with bamboo charcoal, as well.

Friday, January 21, 2011

2008 Purple Tip, revisited

An updated review of one of my favorite young shengs, the 2008 Purple Tip, produced by Best Tea House of Hong Kong and sold in the U.S. through Bana Tea Company. True, "Best Tea House" is a decidedly generic name among the usual players of tea producers but the man behind the company is one of the most respected and long-established puerh experts in China, Mr. Chan Kwok Yee. He opened Best Tea House all the way back in 1988 and has been selling and producing fine puerhs, and training others in the art of tea, ever since. He carries some very rare and expensive teas in his shops, of which this is not one (currently $33 for a 200 gram cake at Bana, not cheap but not hugely expensive for a good young sheng), but that doesn't mean its not a thoroughly enjoyable tea (which it is).

A peek at the beeng, or cake (with a good part already chipped away as I drink this one often) --

I've started using the wenxiangbei (aroma cup) again and am realizing now just what I've been missing. The aromas of puerh are one one of the things I enjoy most about this tea and I'm amazed at the stark differences in fragrance between the wenxiangbei and the freshly rinsed leaves in the gaiwan. The wenxiangbei reveals the most refined and beautiful fragrances. By comparison, smelling the wet leaves in the gaiwan shocks the nose with garish harshness. But while the wenxiangbei is clearly the way to go to for the start of a tea session, the fragrances offered up by the leaves in the gaiwan also have a story to tell through the progression of infusions. That's my current stance for now, anyway. Onto the tea session..

While the wenxiangbei revealed soft fruits and beautiful florals, the leaves in the gaiwan nearly accosted my nose with overly sharp fruit and funky smells, making me wince. Lesson learned. I happen to know this tea possesses a particularly pleasing fragrance, so all this tells me is not to put much stock in the aroma of freshly rinsed leaves. I think its time to start collecting pretty little aroma cups :)

A first infusion of 12-seconds. The color of the liquor is just as pleasing as the fragrance -- a clear yellow-apricot orange. So pretty. And the taste of the first sip brings a smile to my face. This is one tasty tea. Smooth sweet wood with a gentle ku. Very pleasant and easy to drink. A second 15-second infusion reveals sweet leather aromas in the leaves. The tea returns a bit of sweetness to my tongue between sips, making me want to sit back and take my time with it. My breath returns some of that floral quality into my mouth and nose as well, and there's a mild warmth in my chest. Just easy-easy-easy. Such an easy tea to drink and enjoy. Nothing challenging at all.

As the infusions increase in number the aroma of the leaves settles into what could only be described as sitting in a small private library. The walls are paneled with old-but-not-too-old wood, the shelves are lined with leather-bound books and there's a vase of flowers by the window lending their fragrance under it all. This tea may not have as much ku or hui gan as some others, but it's got a great tea flavor with a lingering echo of sweetness well after the last sip. I keep saying this, but it's true. This is a very easy tea to drink and enjoy.

I've started to find great interest in examining the spent leaves. This cup reveals a variety. In amongst the more chopped-up leaves (would that be the plantation filler leaves I read are common in less expensive puerhs these days?) there are several mid-sized whole leaves and also some mid-sized tips. Some of the leaves have a more purplish-brown hue to them which I'm learning are indicative of the "purple leaves" referred to in these purple tip and purple leaf teas.

And lastly, a peek at the "cupboard of indulgences", with it's growing stash of beengs, some fine whiskeys and a few other libations (more my spouse's collection than mine), and in the upper right a small stack of fine extra-dark chocolate bars alongside a box of truly special Corallo chocolate (a chocolate that rivals the best puerhs in terms of complexity and nuance.. I may even write up a review for it one of these days).

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

2006 Xi-Zhi-Hao "Meng Hai Nu Er Zhuan" Brick

Purchased from Hou De, this XZH brick from 2006 is made from MengHai spring tips and Ban Zhan sun-dried mao cha. According to the Hou De site "this finely crafted brick was made to resurrect the Nu Er (daughter) Zhuan tradition." Well I don't know what the Nu Er Zhuan tradition is, but if the drawings on the wrapper are any indication, it involves plenty of hanky panky!

Who knew a tea party could be this much fun?

X-rated tea wrappers aside, this was a very enjoyable tea session (although I can't say it produced the "libidinal qi" the wrapper seemed to suggest). The compressed leaves were big and meaty, shimmering with plenty of downy silver fuzz (not sure my camera catches it so well here), and they offered a promising aroma of rock sugar.

Inspired by the ever-informative Hobbes of the Half-Dipper site, I decided to dust off the aroma cup (wenxiangbei) I purchased when I first became interested in pu-erh. I remember playing with it when I first got it but was never able to find much use with it. The aromas from the freshly wetted leaves were so much more robust and enticing. I soon abandoned the wenxiangbei and developed my own routine of noting the changing aromas from the leaves themselves from one infusion to the next. But that was then, and this is now, and being that I've got a tad bit more experience with tea I figured I'd give it another go.

After a rinse of the leaves I filled and then emptied the aroma cup. The tall narrow design of it makes for a can't-miss channeling of aroma-to-nose. True to the promise of the dry leaf fragrance I gratefully inhaled the soft smell of butterscotch candy. Mmmm... Curious to know if the wet leaves in the gaiwan would offer the same, I picked it up to take a whiff. !!! Nothing like the aroma cup at all! The wet leaves were all about big high-note fruits, jujubes and oranges. Clearly I've been missing out by shunning the aroma cup and I vow to start using it again.

I won't go on and on about each infusion with this post. I'm in more of a summary mood tonight. The color of the soup was a darkened yellow, like yellow ochre with a bit of burnt umber mixed in (one of the benefits of being an artist is a much-expanded color vocabulary). It was also slightly hazy. Not crystal clear. The rock sugar, fruit and butterscotch aromas of the initial infusions soon settled into a unique sweet-and-savory buttered fruit aroma with an occasional note of coffee underneath. Very nice. The taste had a nice hui gan that showed sweet around the edges and was fairly long lasting. Even though it's evening now as I write this I can still taste the echoes of this tea in my mouth (I love it when a tea does that). A nicely balanced ku with this one, too, giving it a mouth-watering quality. There was some nice qi, as well -- not the kind that makes you feel floaty, but one that seems to round all the sharp edges off of life. Outside my window as I was drinking this tea the sky was overcast but still bright. The kind of light photographers love for its gentle diffuse quality. That's what this qi was like.

I spent much of the morning sipping on this tea. The later infusions increased in sweetness, making it a pleasure to drink.

Friday, January 14, 2011

2005 Dehong Wild Trees Puerh Brick

Today's tea of choice was a purchase I made recently based on a review from The Half-Dipper's site, here (plus two other reviews Hobbes links to in his own posting). It sounded so yummy and even though I knew this particular brick might not be the same one he'd tried I found myself irresistibly lured by the rustic handmade look of it (purchased from Holy Mountain Trading Company of San Francisco).

Rustic, indeed! An old cardboard wrapper showing cracks from not-too-careful storage. The five green Chinese (I'm assuming) characters would appear to be hand-painted with some sort of tempera paint except for the perfect half-circle of their arrangement, which would suggest something more stamped than hand-written. Either way, the paint sits on top of the cardboard with a bit of thickness to it.

The brick of tea reveals mostly dark brown with occasional lighter tan leaves which struck me as interesting.

The cross-section shows greater compression on the bottom with looser leaves on the top, which also struck me as notable.

If you zoom in to this pic you can see a clove on the right hand edge, in the middle.

And this was the most surprising thing of all -- cloves! When I pried off some leaves for my gaiwan these two little guys showed up in the mix. I went ahead and added them back in the gaiwan, curious to know why they were mixed in with the leaves and what taste they would add to the tea. If I'd found just one clove I might have thought it got in there accidentally, but finding two in the small amount of leaves I pried off led me to believe that these were intentionally part of the blend.

After a 20-second rinse I took in the fragrance of the leaves. A bit of a horse barn and green hay smell. Not a promising beginning. I've had a few "horse barn teas" before and have always found them ultimately flat and one-dimensionally grassy. Additionally, the newly wetted leaves turned a sickly green color. Another not-so-promising sign. I decided to give this one a second rinse just in case there might be other not-so-pleasant things lurking in my cup.

Still the horse barn aroma but with perhaps a flower garden out back this time. The second rinse seems to have removed much of that sickly look in the leaves although they're still very obviously green. A solid "old choppy green" look now (note the clove bud sitting front and center here) --

I did a first infusion of 12-seconds and was honestly a little scared to taste it. The color of the liquor is decidedly greenish yellow and the taste is like old green tea. Only the very slightest amount of bitterness to it. It wasn't as bad as I feared it might be, but it wasn't like what I know most young puerh to be either (not that I even know that, but I've had a handful). As I get to the bottom of the first cup a surprising floral note hits my nose that's actually quite pronounced and pleasing.

Second infusion -- 12-seconds again. The aroma is squarely in the flower bed now and it's the horse barn that's far off in the distance this time. I notice a bit of dryness in the taste that grabs at the back of my tongue. Also, my breath seems to carry come of that same floral fragrance in between sips. Once again there's a pronounced floral perfume at the bottom of the cup.

Third infusion -- 20-seconds. The aroma is quite flowery now. The hay and the horse barn have disappeared, replaced with some beany vegetal notes off in the distance. And the taste? You've heard of some puerhs tasting like liquid wood? Well, this one is best described as drinking "liquid meadow." That same flower-filled meadow comes back up on my breath too, filling my nose as I breathe. There's also a gentle cooling sensation in my throat and upper chest. I wonder if that might be due to the presence of cloves?

Fourth infusion -- 30 seconds. I've let the water cool through the infusions up to this point. I'm guessing it's around 185-190 now which might be better for this minimally processed greenish tea, but I'm just trying it out. This tea which had at first frightened me is turning into a very pleasant, though different, experience. Still a very mild bitterness in the taste (VERY mild), and a soft (not rough) dryness at the back of my tongue. Continued cooling in the throat and upper chest. Drinking this meadow-like tea in winter like this has me really aching for those early newly-warm spring days.

Fifth infusion -- 30 seconds again, except this time I've brought the water back up to boiling. The fragrance takes up a delicious creaminess now. Smells just like cream. The taste continues to be very pleasant and light and sweet. A very enjoyable tea to drink with just enough grab at the back of the tongue, and just enough activity in my upper chest and throat to make it truly fun to drink.

Sixth infusion (this tea doesn't seem likely to give up anytime soon) -- 45 seconds. The aroma is "cream of meadow soup" now. It makes me happy! That's a good descriptor for the taste, as well. Also, this tea feels so good inside me. It really agrees with my stomach.

Examining the spent leaves takes me back to biology class. A bit of mystery-novel sleuthing, as well. The source of the light tan specks is revealed -- small yellowy leaves that I'm guessing were a very light green, almost colorless, when picked. Or maybe these are the purple tip leaves that Half-Dipper mentions in his tasting of this tea (if, in fact, it's the same tea, and I think it is). There are plenty of chopped leaves and a few stems too, as well as some more unidentifiable bits pictured on the left above. I'm quite sure this is more evidence of cloves. That one hard round pea-like thing looks to be just the end of a particularly meaty clove bud.

Curious now, I hop onto the ever-informative internet and start searching. It seems that cloves are not uncommon in Chinese medicine. In fact, there's a Chinese medicinal tea that uses cloves, peppermint and cinnamon which is supposed to help with digestion (maybe that's why this tea felt so good in my stomach?). Several hours after my session with this tea I find that cooling sensation still present in my throat and upper chest. Maybe there was some peppermint in this tea as well? That's definitely what this cooling sense feels like. Or maybe this is part of the effect of the cloves?

And the verdict? Definitely a very pleasant and enjoyable, if unusual, tea. Obviously not a puerh in the strictest sense, but I love that about it. It speaks to my outside-the-box sympathies and my love for all things artisan and craftsmanship. It's a tea that lends itself easily to story. I can just imagine... a farmer somewhere near Dehong who acquires (maybe harvests himself?) a batch of maocha. He's got a generations-old recipe for a medicinal tea that's well-regarded by all who've tried it. He doesn't have access to the fancy tea-cake making equipment like the factories do so he presses it into bricks, wrapping each one with some cardboard and employing the local kids to stamp each brick with green tempera paint. I wonder what other rustic homemade cakes of tea lie sleeping in the back rooms of San Francisco's Chinatown herb shops?

*** A FOLLOW-UP ***

I've found a bit more information on this tea but it's a little confusing. There are older reviews of this tea floating around the web that claim it was manufactured by the Luxi Tea Factory of Dehong. Another couple of reviews loosely imply it was a Yunnan Sourcing manufactured tea. Currently on the Yunnan Sourcing site there's a Yunnan Sourcing made brick here that looks identical to this one, leading me to believe it's actually a Yunnan Sourcing tea and not Luxi. But then there were those cloves in the mix, which has me completely puzzled. I might have to grab one of the YS bricks just to compare.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Wild Puerh Brick, 1989 (or, To Shu or Not To Shu)

Typical foggy overcast day. Welcome to winter in Seattle.

Today's tea session was again courtesy of the gentleman who sent me yesterday's tea (which I fear I may have failed so miserably). This one is similarly vaguely described -- "Wild puerh brick, 1989, Jiang Cheng, Yunnan" (that latter bit being about the origin and not the manufacturer). Is this a shengpu or a shupu? I'd only ordered sheng but maybe this was an extra sample tucked in? I decide to test my discernment skills once again and wait to check my order records. We'll see how I do.

Again, nice meaty chunks are pulled from the sample bag and the leaves pull apart easily with just a tug of my fingers. My first impressions are that this is a raw puerh (shengpu). None of that en masse stuck-togetherness that I find in the few other shupu's I've tried. Still, the leaves are surprisingly uniformly dark, but then it's a 20 year old brick so maybe that's what happens?

After a 10-second rinse I smell the wet leaves. Nuts! A mixture of almonds and hazelnuts. I've had only one other tea with this unique nutty aroma and it happens to be one of my favorites -- Bana's Denong Wild brick. But that's a cooked puerh. Hm. A first infusion of 8-seconds and the aroma is solidly hazelnut now. The liquor pours a surprisingly dark brown with a hint of orange hue. This sure is reminding me of shupu. The taste is so very earthy and smooooooth. It coats my mouth nicely. No ku (bitterness) at all. It reminds me a lot of my beloved Denong Wild.

More infusions and more of that smooth, delicious dark brew, although "medium aged wood" is added to my tasting notes as the session progresses. It's not as dark as the deep composing humus-y woods of the Gong Ting I have from New Century, but it's not new wood either. So "medium aged wood" it is. Later infusions reveal a gradual shift in the aroma. The extreme nuttiness gives way to... well, it's hard to pin down, but if you were to ask me to come up with an aroma reminiscent of the late 80's this might be a good candidate. Reagan-era aroma?? Now there's a descriptor to beat them all!

This tea is reminding me so much of the Denong Wild that I decide to brew up some of that as well. A side-by-side comparison. I'm convinced now this mystery tea is a shu and not a sheng. It's so smooth and dark and it lacks the depth and complexity of shengpu. A pure delight to drink, though. Don't get me wrong.

(although Bana's brick is pictured here, the liquor in the cup is the '89 tea)

Bana's 2009 Denong Wild brick does have one big difference from this tea -- it's compressed to a challenging rock-like level. No way I'd be able to pry off anything even resembling a leaf with just my fingers. And since I'm in a hurry this morning to get to an appointment I gouge off some ugly bits with the pick. But this tea and I are good friends and I know I'll be forgiven for such rough treatment (still, I silently promise to be much kinder in the future).

A rinse and a pour and I'm taking in that wonderful aroma. Though the Denong Wild shares this all-nuts characteristic with the other tea, it surpasses it in sweetness. Pecans all the way, the sweetest of the nuts. The Denong Wild pours a richer color, as well. More orange and antique gold in the light making the dark brown brew nearly glow. More vibrancy and aliveness to the aroma too, and the taste is more assertively woody than the 1989 tea. Mmmm I love this tea.

But the '89 tea is not bad. It's actually quite good. If I'd never had the Denong Wild I'd be going nuts for it (oy.. pun..). But side by side there's no contest. Still, I start to wonder. These teas are exactly 20 years apart. Very similar in many ways but the 1989 is gentler, slower, sweeter around the edges, which is actually a fairly decent description of what happens when people age, too. It could be that the '89 tea is a glimpse of the future for the Denong Wild.

Later after cleaning up I go to check my records to see if my hunch about this tea being a shupu was right. To my great surprise, I was wrong!! It's listed as a sheng! I'm still in some disbelief about it. I've had so few shu's so I can't really trust myself on this one, but there was so much similarity to the cooked Denong Wild. So much smoothness and easy-drinking sweet dark wood. One thing's for sure, I'll be keeping this tea in mind when tasting shu's in the future. So dark and smooth... I could have sworn...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Something raw, wild and Yiwu, 2003

Well shoot. Here I was feeling all newly empowered with impressive (or so I thought) puerh discernment skills, so I sit down today full of confidence with a shengpu (ooooh she's using jargon now) from an overseas vendor who's reputation is stellar among those in the know. Let's see how she fares..

I'm inspired to start learning more about what the cake will tell me, even before prying the leaves off. A pretty one, this one. Maybe not as shiny as photos I've seen of other highly anticipated teas, but clearly nice long leaves. I'm impressed with the meaty chunks of cake I've been sent. Always fun to pull out substantial pieces like this from a sample bag. Can I wax on about percentage of tips to stems and potential oxidation factors? No. Don't know if I'll ever reach that level of familiarity, but it doesn't hurt to open the door.

This one shows lots of red, indicating oxidation. Wait, wrong leaf..

The dried leaves smell promising, like candied tobacco. A 5-second rinse and there's a flash of tobacco in the air followed by sweet fleshy fruits. But almost as soon as the aromas present themselves they quickly recede. Darn. I do a short 5-second infusion but the aromas from the wet leaves stay stubbornly backstage leaving only a faint soft sweetness behind. The liquor is a tawny Indian yellow and the taste is decidedly uninteresting. Maybe this is one of those teas that reveals itself more slowly?

A second infusion of 10-seconds this time -- the wet leaf fragrance rises briefly with some softly vanilla'd tobacco but quickly fades again. Color a bit deeper. Taste is again 'blah' except for the slightest sense of tongue-tingling and a bit of dryness. Okay. Onward ho.

12-seconds this time and the liquor pours more orange, giving me hope. I quickly plunge my nose into the wet leaves to catch what fragrances I can. Malty notes come forward this time (again briefly) rounding off the fruit. There's a gentle and mild warmth in my chest and a bit of perspiration at the temples but nothing to write home about. Taste-wise there's a bit of ku (bitterness) as the liquor cools, but I'm still not finding myself impressed with this tea and I start to worry. Is the tea failing me, or am I failing the tea? I fear it's the latter. Maybe I don't have the developing palate I thought I had? Perhaps my brewing practice is off? Maybe the water or the kettle are killing this tea? I'm confused.

15-seconds this time and the wet leaves return a distinct fragrance of soft leather settling into a distant hint of sugar cubes. Nice and comforting, but the taste still isn't there. Next is a 23-second dunk. Fragrance-wise nothing comes out to greet me. All stays distant and hard to distinguish. The taste (or is this mouth feel?) shows as dryness on the tongue. And is there qi in this one? Hard to tell if it's the tea putting me in a contemplative mood or if that's due to my great effort to be mindful with this session. Mudkip stayed ever-faithfully nearby but was mostly uninterested, intently gnawing on a few stubborn tangles in her fur. She has an uncanny way of reflecting the state of my tea session.

"Must you keep at those annoying noises, mom? Isn't it clear that I'm busy?"

Sunday, January 9, 2011

1999 Da Du Gan "Yunnan Yuan Bao" Chi Tse

1999 Da Du Gan "Yunnan Yuan Bao" Chi Tse (sample)
Manufacturer: Da Du Gan Factory/Chan Tai Factory produced

The first of a string of big guns. Am I ready for this? I think so. Been developing my palate and cutting my teeth on a variety of pu's (much more than what I've written about here). Time to learn what some age can bring to a good pu-erh. Guang from Hou De rates this as his #2 favorite arbor pu-erh from the late 90's, and he's certainly reputed to know his stuff. I appreciate the advice from some folks that one shouldn't rely on others' recommendations and should find out for themselves what pu-erh taste profiles they prefer. But when you're new to pu-erh and you're staring at over 1100 varieties just on Yunnan Sourcing alone... well, I don't think it's so bad to try out some others' suggestions as a start. It's not like I've gone and plunked down the $320 asking price for a full cake of this. Samples are a girl's best friend --

Hmmm... how to brew these precious leaves? This is where practice is important. I've played enough with these teas to have some idea of the difference a few seconds will make or how temperature might affect it. Granted, I'm no expert. Far from it. But I've got a little experience under my belt now. Some of the best advice I've heard is to simply listen to the tea (hence the title of this blog), which I think is what makes the experience of drinking pu-erh (especially the more complex and nuanced stuff) so sublime.

First, the rinse. I did a very quick one with water that had cooled slightly from boiling, but looking back now I probably didn't need to be so fast about it. These leaves have been sitting around for 12 years. I'm sure they're mighty thirsty. They just look it, don't they?

"Feed me!"

After pouring off the rinse water I get to the best part of pu-erh, for me -- the first aromas of the freshly wetted leaves. mmmm, so good... From the first whiff it was clear I was in for a very enjoyable (and very educational) session. First was that classic tobacco-y smell, except it was so alive and vibrant it actually made my nose tingle. Almost immediately the fragrance deepened with dark dried fruit, prune and date, settling into deep fruit and molasses. As the leaves started to cool the tobacco rose up again to take front stage.

The first infusion I played very safe, doing a quick 3-4 seconds with water that had sat for several minutes in the kettle since boiling. I knew the liquor would be light, but I wanted to unfold this tea very slowly and savor it for all it's worth. The color of the liquid was a pale orange, hinting at what it would become in later infusions. And the taste? An immediate tingle at the back of my tongue and throat. By the end of that first cup my whole mouth was buzzing and there was a very faint sweetness all around. But the tingling and sweetness was all very quiet and subtle. Clearly I needed to add a few more seconds to the brewing time.

Second infusion: 8 seconds with freshly boiled water. Still wanting to play it on the safe side, but I felt this was a good next step. First, a revisit to that gorgeous fragrance of the wet leaves. I wrote them down in the order they registered: leather, tobacco, prune, dark sweet cherry, honey, and then lingering off into all sorts of wafty wonderfulness. If they ever make a perfume with this kind of complexity and changeability I'd buy it in an instant. The color of the liquor is darker now though I'm sure it won't reveal itself fully for another infusion or two. The taste this time is more assertive. There's dryness developing at the back of the palate. I can feel the qi rising as well, filling my head. My whole mouth is tingling and a warmth builds deep inside my chest. Is there hui gan present? I'm still struggling to understand what hui gan means exactly. I've had pu-erhs that go down with a sort of bitterness and rise back up to a distinct sweetness, which I'm thinking is hui gan. With this tea there is very little of that bitterness and very little of that sweetness. At least not yet. But everything else -- wow.

For the 3rd infusion I go for 12-13 seconds, still playing it safe. I don't want to push it too hard yet until I'm satisfied I've had all the subtleties of the first revealings. The wet-leaf aroma of leather and tobacco stays longer this time. The fruit and honey fragrances are there but stay behind the main players, only coming forward as the leaves start to cool. I can taste some fruit in the tea now as well, and my mouth starts salivating. The qi is felt all through my head and body now leaving me feeling soft and floaty. I can feel sweat at my temples and forehead and heat through my whole body. Even my fingers feel warm and perspire-y. This is a first for me, this sense of "perspire-y-ness". I've read about it in others' reviews, but with pretty much all of them being male and me being female (and so of that biased perspective) I kept picturing something more... well... masculine. Sweating men, you know... ;) But thankfully I wasn't left dripping and mopping off beads of sweat (not that all men perspire that way, but I fear this image did creep into my mind as I read various reports of teas that cause one to perspire). Anywho, after finishing my third cup I was satisfied it was time to push the next infusion a bit. Still wasn't getting that rising sweetness I've had in other pu-erhs, though. Maybe it was yet to come?

For the 4th infusion I threw counted seconds to the wind and went with intuition. I poured the water, placed the gaiwan lid on for about 10 seconds and then lifted it back up to agitate the leaves with it, watching the color of the water change and waiting for a sense of "okay.. Now". I did keep count, though. I got the "now" signal at about 30 seconds. The tea was a nice rich sienna now, and I am very definitely tea drunk. The tongue-tingling and mouth-salivating continues full on as I drink it. I suddenly remembered -- what about "mouth feel?" I hadn't jotted any notes down about that yet. But it didn't hit me with sensations of "thick" or "silky". In fact, the mouth feel was nothing special. I've read that drinking from old tea cups can contribute to a better mouth feel, but for now all I have is this recently made blown glass cup, though I do have a couple of antique tea cups on order. It'll be fun to try those out.

For my 5th infusion I go with 50 seconds, pushing the tea a little more. The aroma of the wet leaves is mellowing now. All the fragrance notes I've been identifying are still there, but they're coming together now, less separate and more melded. My tea drunkenness is huge now and all I want from life is to sit and gaze out the window, settling into this mellow buzz. Truly, this stuff is akin to Prozac! I keep hearing that line from Star Wars echoing through my head, "The Force is strong with this one" (yes.. geekdom.. I know..). But still no rising sweetness to it. I'm a little bummed.

For the 6th infusion I push quite a bit harder. Two minutes this time. Let's see what it's got. The aromas are all familiar and while they've mellowed some there's still a vibrancy and aliveness to the fragrance. The tingling and warmth continues. This is truly a deeply penetrating tea, that's for sure. But I'm wishing there was more sweetness to it. Definitely a tea to take one's time with, savoring the qi if not the flavors. Still plenty of rising salivation and perspire-y feeling (just can't bring myself to say "perspiration" as it conjures up more brute sweatiness than is true for the experience).

And the 7th infusion? I remember pouring the water. I remember starting to count. But then my buzzing head got distracted and I was off playing with the camera or something. Suffice it to say the leaves got a serious dunking. I'm guessing it was maybe 4 or 5 minutes. Longer than I would have gone for if my well-fuzzified brain hadn't wandered off. A strong brew indeed. Much stronger than it needed to be, or than my stomach was comfortable with. I decided to call the session done for today and am saving the leaves for more playtime tomorrow. But not before spending some moments examining the wet leaves. I notice they all have surprisingly strong and prominent spines to them. A hallmark of true arbor leaves, I'm guessing.

And the verdict? Major qi in this one, with body sensations galore, and a joy to take in those many nuanced aromas. But... I kept wishing it had more taste and flavor to it. Reading over Guang's tasting notes I see he talks some about this too, which is nice to read as it affirms my palate is developing nicely. I've got several more samples of well-reputed older pu-erhs on the way, though. I'm interested to know if this is a characteristic of most older pu-erhs, or if it's just this one in particular. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Moonlight White from Jingmai

Moonlight White from Jingmai, from Bana Tea Company
2010 vintage, spring harvest
Type: raw loose-leaf pu'erh, premium grade
Production area: Jingmai Mountain, Simao Prefecture, Yunnan province

The write-up on this tea, from Bana's website:

This loose leaf Moonlight White was discovered at a roadside tea shop during our trip to the tea mountains of Yunnan. The tea master from this tea shop is meticulous in the processing of their teas and the quantity they have is extremely limited. Bana is very pleased to have procured a small supply of this tea for the Moonlight White followers.

Just finished a session with this tea and I can't get "Big Rock Candy Mountain" out of my head. This pu'erh is sweet-sweet-sweet! Just every kind of sweet. My tasting notes go from "sweet hay and fruit" to "malt and caramel" to "nectarine and butterscotch". If I was pressed to give a single descriptor to the aroma it would have to be "candied malted sweet hay." Even when the leaves cooled off in the gaiwan they continued to fill the air with major-big sweet.

This one's a loose-leaf pu'erh. My 8 gram sample pack filled the gaiwan to the brim. Like Bana's 2007 Moonlight White, this one had that distinctive creamy pale green and black coloring to the dry leaves. I noticed that almost all of the leaves were fully intact. Is this a leaf-and-bud pick? I'm afraid I'm not quite sure what a tea bud looks like, but as you can see above each piece included one leaf and one "bud-like leaf". By that I mean it was the very tip where a new leaf is curled up inside another leaf, on the verge of emerging. Is that a bud? I don't know :(
The liquor brewed up nicely yellow. First infusions were a pale lemon yellow but by the 3rd infusion it had deepened to gorgeous Indian yellow --

And the taste? Was a little different from the usual pu'erh tastes I've come to know. Certainly the sweetness was there. At times it struck me as a very mellowed green tea, which I guess would make sense since this was picked less than a year ago. At other times it was almost oolong-like with it's big fragrance. "Creamy" is a word I would associate with the taste. Can't really say it had the complexity of my favorite pu'erhs, but by no means was it unpleasant to drink. Just different. Delicate. And sooooo full of sweet (especially in the aroma). It did produce a faint tingle on my tongue and also a faint dryness that grabbed at the back of my throat. I guess the big question is, would I buy more of this? Maybe. It would be a nice sweet mellow counterpart to drink when I've had too much of the strong stuff. Very pleasant in a sweet and feminine way.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Oh my. I should have heeded the warnings, but no... I had to go ahead and become a tea-head. It all seemed so innocent at first. Just a hop skip and a jump to a local tea shop in the international district. All those yummy and mysterious-smelling teas in big glass jars. Like walking into an ancient apothecary. It was the long jing that started it. I'd had plenty of tea in my lifetime before then -- store bought bags of fake fruity stuff... the occasional cup of "green tea" that was supposed to be full of something good for my health. But I was never turned-on by it. Not until that really good, and really expensive (compared to the grocery store stuff), long jing. There was no going back. Soon I was ordering fresh quality green teas from far-off places. All *yum*.

Next I started sampling some oolongs from my favorite little local tea shop, but those flowery/fruity aromas were so loud and overwhelming! Nothing like the subtlety of the greens. The more I've learned about tea the more I find myself wondering if I just haven't had really good oolong (except for that one wuyi shui xian, but it could have been my great weakness for chocolate that was responsible for the glowing review, more so than the tea itself).

And then. Pu-erh. If you've got a thing for subtlety like I do, then this is the tea for you. But heed the warnings! That innocent preference for "good tea" quickly snowballs into an obsession. It won't be long before those $50+ cakes of tea don't look as expensive as they used to (but hey -- you get dozens of of tea sessions out of a cake, and you can store them and maybe they'll be worth a bundle someday, but then you'd never think of selling them because your only thought is how much more sublime the tea will taste in years to come). And then you start reading about the mind-blowing experiences of tasting aged pu'erhs and you feel like you just *have* to try one out. Nevermind that a cup of good 30 to 40 year old pu will set you back a Ben Franklin or two. And DO NOT start reading blogs and reviews and forums! Not unless you have a lot of disposable cash to, um, dispose of.

And so it is with 2011. Thanks to my burgeoning tea addiction, coupled with some Christmas cash from Santa, I've got some mighty nice tea headed my way through the mail right now. I'm counting the days...

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2004 "Zhai Zhi Po" Beeng

2004 Nan-Jian first batch "Zhai Zhi Po" Beeng
Type: Raw uncooked pu'erh
Manufacturer: Nan-Jian Factory
Origin: Zhai Zhi Po region, categorized as "small leaf arbor" tea trees

This was a free sample sent to me with the cake I ordered, below. I know some people complain that these tea review blogs only give positive reports on teas, so this one will shake things up a bit. I had high hopes for this tea upon opening the bag. The leaves, even in their dry state, were richly fragrant with plenty of tobacco and vanilla and some overtones of sweet citrus fruits. Same with the aroma from the freshly wetted leaves. It smelled so promising! But the taste of the first infusion was uninteresting and flat. Really nothing going on at all. Even the color of the liquor was unexciting -- a boring brown color with a very slight tinge of dull orange. But sometimes tea doesn't reveal itself until later infusions, so I marched on. 2nd infusion (which I steeped for a bit longer than I normally might with other pu'erhs) showed a faint hui gan, a little dry and bitter at first but soon rising to a subtle and mellow sweetness. But it was weak and not very pronounced. Certainly not like the tea from my last post. 3rd infusion showed a stronger hui gan, but still there was little flavor to the tea. Just not much there to add interest and complexity. You can see from the picture, too, that the leaves were quite small and broken up, in addition to being a uniform flat brown color. I tried a few more infusions but it wasn't long before my stomach started to tense up and hurt, and I know from experience that when a tea causes that sort of reaction in me I'd better abandon that tea session quickly or be uncomfortable for the rest of the day. Disappointing.