Friday, February 25, 2011

2000 Kunming "Lan Yin" Tie Beeng

Is it Kumming or (more properly) Kunming?  Is it Lan Yin Tie Beeng?  Or Zhong-Cha Lan Tie?  It's frustrating sometimes, the variations of English names for these Chinese tea cakes, and not being a student of Chinese language myself I'm at the mercy of those who sell and write about them.  I have no choice but to set aside my hope for literal correctness on the matter.  You know what tea I'm referring to here, but in case there's a question, here it is:

I've been struggling a bit since my last entry.  In my desire to broaden my knowledge of puerh I've been venturing all over the map.  Expensive stuff, cheap stuff, good and bad, young and old.  I've been collecting little sample bags of the oldest (and subsequently priciest) teas available for purchase to Westerners, waiting to try them until I've felt ready.  I've tried a few and it's put me into a bit of a conundrum.  I'm understanding now just what the fuss is about older puerhs, and damn if it's not screwing with my taste for younger shengs!  Clearly two very different beasts, and given the rarity (not to mention cost) of aged teas I really need to settle my excitement down and get back to an appreciation of the younger shengs.  Had I taken that job in the '80's with that little up-and-coming company on the Eastside known as Microsoft, well then maybe I could be drinking a lot more truly aged puerh now, but as it is...

I started the morning with a sample bag of a 2003 sheng from another vendor, but it was so green and young.  My heart just wasn't in it.  I decided to switch gears and pull out this much-reputed cake I purchased last year from Hou De, the 2000 Kumming/Kunming "Lan Yin"/"Lan Tie" what-have-you shengpu.  It's been sitting on my shelf since then.  Today is my first session with it.  It's an interesting cake, undoubtedly machine-pressed with it's sharp perpendicular edge and the lack of a dimple on the bottom side (which added some frustration when I tried to wrap it back up, not having that little bit of space to press the gathered paper into).

A 15-second rinse.  The aroma is all storage smell, but more dry smelling than musty.  I don't know what the storage history of this cake is and I have too little time to look it up now, but from the smell I'd guess it wasn't particularly wet.  At least not recently.  Still, its rather off-putting.  Behind the storage smell is what can best be described as smokey Southwestern desert sage.  I know this is just a variation of the typical camphor, but (in my nose, anyway) it's distinctly sage.  I recently had the pleasure of smelling some truly heavenly hand-distilled Southwestern desert and clary sage essence and the fragrance off this tea is bringing back that memory.  Maybe if I hadn't been so recently impressed with that fragrance I wouldn't be naming this now as 'sage', but it's clearly in the camphor family.  I set the first infusion for 10-seconds but the aroma from the gaiwan is still strongly... well, strange.  I decide to chuck that first infusion and call it a second rinse ;)

Another 10-second steep and the fragrance finally sheds that funkiness.  It's all dry grassy desert sage now and the taste is surprisingly smooth at first with some grab in the mouth and throat.  The aftertaste immediately rises like smoke off a hillside of freshly-burned chapparal.  This becomes the dominant theme for this tea throughout most of the session -- big smoke and big sage.  It's as if I'm out camping in southern Utah or Arizona, the air thick with desert sage and campfire smoke.

I quickly learned to be conservative with my steepings.  Any bit of push and I was drinking liquid smoke.  There was some sweet fruitiness present, but only around the far edges and only when the tea had been prepared delicately or the leaves began to cool.  The smoke and sage aspects were nearly overpowering.  A strong tea, indeed.  I recall someone telling me recently to break up a cake and store it for a few months to help rid it of some funky storage elements, and it occurs to me that this would probably be a good approach for this tea, as well.  Not for the storage smell but for the smokiness.  And in fact after tasting this tea I went and read a few reviews of it and folks seem to recommend that very approach.  I'm not surprised.

Another notable aspect of this tea is the penetrating qi it carries.  Really quite strong, settling in the head and enveloping the body.  Given the strength of this tea (even with the extreme smokiness) and the powerful qi component, I'm inclined to think this was a very wise purchase, although it's going to need a whole lot of time to work out its strong, slightly funky personality and find its way to some settled maturity.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

1970's Tong Qing Hao

In the garden of exquisite flowers at the bank of a river 
The Bliss-gone honey-bees are sitting on the flowers, 
Totally beautifying the garden and emitting the sound of the Dharma drum, 
And the whole garden manifests as if listening to the holy Dharma with respect...
The forest, as if it were the clear sky shining with stars and planets, 
Is peaceful and rich with the ornament of garlands of virtues. 
It is beautified with the glories of nature. 
Such prosperity never exists even in the heaven of Brahma. 
Trees carry loads of fruits and leaves. 
Gardens provide different pleasures in the four seasons .
Rivers emit various music sweet to hear. 
Forests are ornamented by ascetics in contemplation. 
From the sounds of trees touched by winds, 
Birds, bees, and deer 
Hear the pacifying holy Dharma in Brahma voice. 
These sights make blossom the thousand-petalled flower of faith. 
It seems that all the virtuous karma perfected in the past, 
And the blessings of the kindness of the holy ones 
Have entered the beings of this land, 
And that the samsaric ocean is going to end. 

- Longchen Rabjam

If you're looking for a review of the 70's Tong Qing Hao (sample thanks to The Essence of Tea), you won't find it here.  I made no notes.  Instead I read some Longchenpa, contemplated the matter of age and essence, and steeped myself in thankfulness.   :)

Friday, February 18, 2011

2000 No-Name "Yunnan Wild Old Tree" tuo cha (raw)

I recently made several purchases from a small Hong Kong seller on Ebay.  He (she?) doesn't have a virtual store front like the more well-known Ebay vendors, but is listing plenty of puerh, almost all of it between $0.01 and maybe a couple dollars at most.  The shipping costs (between $7.99 and $9.99 per cake) are really all you're paying for these teas.  For as strange as this sounds I've been wanting to taste some particularly bad puerhs as a way to further my knowledge.  Then again, who's to say a cheap puerh is necessarily bad?  (or that a $219 cake is good?)  Who knows.. I might find a gem among these penny-puerhs?  Not much different from taking a gamble with a random tea listed on Taobao.

I got my box of tea cakes yesterday.  This seller shipped them relatively fast and did a good job of packing them with enough care to insure they wouldn't get damaged or wet.  I don't know the story of why he's selling so much for so cheap.  I'm guessing it might be the liquidation of a tea shop gone out of business, but I don't really know.  All I know is that he's been pleasant to deal with and returns my inquiries quickly.  Most of the tea he's listing is less than 5 years old, but now and then he lists something a bit older.  Today I'm trying a mini tuo cha that was listed as a 2000 Yunnan Wild Old Tree raw puerh.  Not a bad looking little guy.

I did a 20-second rinse and then took in the fragrances from both a wenxiangbei and the newly wetted leaves in the gaiwan.  The wenxiangbei was the most nuanced (as usual), starting off with a solid tea smell, followed by strong plum, then sugar, and finally lingering off with a dusty dry pollen smell.  The leaves in the gaiwan, on the other hand, instantly transported me to my grandmother's closet.  Old clothes and shoes and maybe a box of prunes in the corner long passed the shelf date.  Although the wenxiangbei smelled promising, the aroma of the leaves in the gaiwan was enough to prompt me to do a second rinse.

10-second rinse this time -- ahhh better.  The grandma's closet smell was gone now and the fragrance was all soft but indistinct fruit.  I thought I smelled some banana, which struck me as unusual.  Feeling emboldened I went for a first infusion, starting off gentle with 7 seconds.  The aroma continued with the theme of "indistinct fruit" (I know... not very helpful) and again I'm thinking I smell some banana in there.  The color of the soup is promising, a clear and soft medium orange.  Taste?  Not much going on.  My first impressions were a tingling sensation in my mouth, followed by a pronounced drying of the mouth.  To be honest, I found myself wondering how much I was taking in in the way of pesticides.

I have to admit I was expecting a bad tea.  Yes, it was the price I paid for it and where I bought it.  Just like my high expectations for the YS $219 cake, I found myself wanting this tea to be bad.  I watched my thoughts on this matter and found myself asking, if this humble little tuo were offered on, say, Essence of Tea's website for a much pricier sum, would I be finding more merit with it now?  I wondered, but as the session wore on I knew this was no special tea.  I quickly bumped up the infusion times in an effort to get more taste out of it.  Wood flavors came forward but they were weak compared to other teas I've had.  The strange tingling in my mouth continued and if I didn't have first-hand experience of true hui gan I might have wondered if that's what I was sensing.  But I *do* know hui gan and this was something else.  Something not entirely pleasant or reassuring.

By the third infusion the leaves had lost nearly all fruit-related aromas and what remained might best be described as 'plain old tea.'  The taste was 'kind of watered down wood.'  I don't know if this could be called a bad puerh.  It certainly wasn't overly bitter or sour (I have yet to taste a puerh that has a sourness to it, though I read about it now and then).  Aside from the mouth tingling, which decreased with each steeping, there wasn't anything particularly unpleasant about this tea.  But neither was there anything that stood out to command my attention as a particularly fine aspect.  If I were to rate all the teas I've experienced thus far, with 1 being the worst and 10 being the best, I'd probably give this one a 3.  I've definitely had worse (the worst tea I ever had smelled and tasted as though it'd been grown, processed and stored at the bottom of a bus stop ash tray that hadn't been cleaned for far too long).  I picked up quite a few of these penny-puerhs, though, so maybe I'll find something yummy.  Or not.  :)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

2000 vs. 2003 Yong Pin Hao "Yi Wu Zheng Shan"

A little experiment today in what a few years can bring to a tea.  JAS-eTea offers some clever sample sets and I picked up the Yong Pin Hao one just for this purpose, to compare and learn.  This will be less a tea review than just a comparative reporting of differences in aroma, taste and mouth feel.

So much discussion of young versus aged puerh, and of what constitutes truly "aged" tea.  My understanding is that puerh can't really be put in the aged category until it's got a good couple of decades on it.  Teas like these today are generally still considered young, although the 2000 might be said to just be entering into adolescence (please do chime in, those of you more in-the-know than I).  One of the challenges, and also one of the pleasures, of learning about puerh is that there really is no one central location or how-to book (I take that back -- I've seen a few "Let's Learn About Puerh" books but haven't read any, nor have I heard anyone talking about the value of such books).  It seems the best way to learn is simply to taste-taste-taste, as well as spend time reading blogs and other online resources.  That latter method can be tricky as even among the in-the-know tea drinkers there are great differences of opinion.  It's hard to come up with a single set of definitive parameters.

So what do we know about what age can bring to a tea?  Certainly older teas pour a darker soup with a more orange hue.  Some younger teas can pour a bit orange as well, but there's some debate over why this is so, with some folks suggesting these teas have been purposefully manipulated and oxidized, either to fool the consumer or to bump up certain flavors in the tea to add to its marketability, while others feel there is less purposeful manipulation going on and that some tea leaves from some regions simply pour more orange, or that the matter of oxidation is more due to storage issues or even brewing methods.

Older puerhs are also said to have a smoother taste, but the pathway from brand-new cake to well-aged tea doesn't appear to be so straight forward with each added year to a tea's age producing a steady march toward 'dark and smooth' like some sort of straight-line graph.  This is where it gets interesting.  I've read that puerhs can go through different phases during the aging process, sometimes going through a not-so-tasty period before emerging eventually (or not) into a quite tasty tea.  Who's to say which young tea will age into elegance and which will simply wither toward the insipid?  Again, opinions vary widely among those who drink a lot of puerh.  Some are of the opinion that those younger shengs which grab you by the throat with strength and challenge are the ones most likely to age into something truly interesting, while others will tell you they've tasted shengs that started out more agreeably (not so strong and bitter) and which grew into some very sublime tea in later years.

2000 on the left, 2003 on the right
So it was my hope that my comparative tea session today would teach me a little more about what age can bring to a tea.  Examining the dry samples seemed to show that the 2003 contained larger leaves, but at the end of my tea session, when I laid out the spent leaves side by side, the leaf-size was pretty much even between the two.  I'm learning that the appearance of the dry cake is not a very good indicator of what kind of leaves the cake actually contains.  Plus there's the matter of "top dressing" cakes (putting the larger, more showy leaves on the top) and the matter of just what part of the cake a serving is taken from, whether the edge, the center, or somewhere in between.

As I expected, the soup of the 2000 tea is a tad bit darker and more orange than the 2003.  This was clearest with the first infusions, but as the steepings increased in number the 2003 seemed to do a little catch-up, getting a bit darker and more orange.  Was I witnessing this tea oxidizing right before my eyes?  Could be.  I've read that this happens.

2nd infusion (2000 on the left)

4th infusion

6th infusion

Certainly the biggest differences between these two (relatively close in age) teas was in the aromas.  Though both fruity, the 2003 smelled of juicier riper fruit while the 2000 had a more concentrated dried-fruit quality.  Also, the 2000 dipped into the realm of tobacco and cigarette fragrances which the 2003 didn't show at all.  Taste-wise I had a harder time detecting big differences, though the 2000 tea certainly felt more penetrating in the mouth and throat, bringing up more salivation than the 2003.  Tasting them side by side (which I'm not convinced is the best way to do these comparisons) the 2003 had a lighter taste to it and a not-quite-as-broad taste profile.  And yet, on the subject of ku it was the 2000 that seemed to grab a little more deeply.  I'd read that it was the younger shengs that generally contain more bitterness, but that wasn't the case here, and I really have no answer for why this was so (I've also been thinking lately that I could gain from a little more education on this matter of bitterness, which I know tea enthusiasts differentiate in a few ways).  Could it be that the 2000 was heading into some sort of awkward adolescent phase?  Or maybe what I was tasting had less to do with age and more to do with the differences of weather conditions between 2000 and 2003 and the resulting effects on the tea leaves?

As I sat with these two teas I realized how much more informative it would be to compare, say, the 2000 to the 2010 version of this tea, and I might go seeking the 2010 just for this purpose.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

1990's Puerh Tea Brick, Menghai Tea Factory (sheng)

I recently picked up some samples from The Chinese Tea Shop in Vancouver, Canada and have been slowly making my way through them.  This tea, an ambiguously labeled brick said to be from the '90's, turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.  The description on The Chinese Tea Shop's product page says, "This tea has an interesting history, as it was ordered from Hong Kong to be sold in Taiwan.  To avoid export restrictions and possible political repercussions, it was shipped without a wrapper.  The paper ticket has eight 'Tai' characters and a 'Cha' character in the middle of the traditional 'Eight Jong Cha' logo."  Perhaps someone in the know reading this can offer a little more information about this matter of Tai and Cha characters, or the Eight Jong Cha logo.  The Chinese Tea Shop suggests that this is a Menghai Tea Factory production.  Whatever it is, it made for a fun and interesting session.  :)

I was sent a large, fully intact chunk of brick plus a few smaller chunks.  The leaves look dark and the brick is well-compressed.  I had to use my pick to pry off some tea and ended up filling the gaiwan with several small chunks since trying to pry off individual intact leaves left me with more crumbs than I wanted (not to mention a bleeding finger).  After a rinse and a first short infusion (which showed extremely light in color and flavor due to the leaves still being mostly bound up in chunks) I used my fingers to gently pry apart the now-moistened chunks into individual leaves.  That seemed to do the trick and the next infusion was much more full-flavored.

The initial aroma was full of big camphor, moving toward plummy fruit after the first hit, and then a hint of vanilla orange sherbet upon cooling (yes, that sounds a little odd but that's what hit me, for whatever reason).  As the infusions increased in number the camphor notes quickly receded to the far back letting the fruit notes predominate.  Middle infusions (numbers 3 through 5) showed mostly plummy fruit in the fragrance, and later infusions brought up some delicious butterscotch notes and eventually just soft creamy butter as the fruity notes receded.  All throughout I'd get occasional whiffs of a bright greenness that struck me as echoes of this tea's youth.  I really enjoyed the slowly changing character of the aromas from one infusion to the next.

Taste-wise, this tea showed a clean woody flavor overall, with occasional camphor top notes and a nice surrounding sweetness.  The color was a solid medium orange, and actually a bit lighter than I expected.  I spent this session drinking the tea out of two different cups -- Petr Novak's Prairie Hay teabowl (because I love the experience of drinking from this bowl), and a double-walled glass cup to allow a clearer view of the changing color of the soup.  Interestingly, the tea tasted a bit sweeter from the glass cup.  I'm not sure if this is due to the nature of the interaction of tea with glass versus glazed clay, or that the tea stays hotter longer in the double-walled glass cup.  Contrastingly, the tea had more ku in Petr's clay bowl.

While the fragrance and taste of this tea was pleasant enough, it was the hui gan and the movement of qi that made this one a stand out.  Ever since I experienced the wonderful returning sweetness from the 2006 Yiwu Cha Wang I've been searching for another tea that offers the same experience.  This one fits the bill.  Like the Cha Wang, the returning sweetness from this 90's tea brick sheng rises long after sipping, taking you by surprise.  With teas like this I end up spending a long time at my session as it beckons you to take your time and sit between infusions, listening inside for hidden subtleties it has to offer.

Speaking of hidden subtleties, it wasn't just the long-after-sipping rising sweetness that this tea gifts you.  The hui gan was terrifically long lasting, building more and more with each infusion.  Initially it was camphor-centered, with a coolness down the throat and back on the breath.  But eventually it acquired a plummy floral layer to it.  The cool camphor stayed present but took a back seat, playing a nice background harmony to the fruit and floral.  In later infusions the subtly changing tastes in the mouth and throat and on the breath from the long-lasting hui gan made for a lot to enjoy between sips.

But wait, there's more! (oy.. I'm channeling Billy Mays now)  Like the hui gan, the movement of qi with this tea was just as active.  Again, it developed in intensity as the number of infusions increased.  It started as a pleasant warmth in the mid-torso.  By the middle infusions it was filling the torso and moving outward to the extremities, and by the latter infusions it was just as interesting to follow the movement and activity of qi between sips as it was to take in the nuances of the hui gan, as it moved from torso to extremities, filling the head with a light buzz before eventually settling in the core of the body.  It was good practice for me to pay attention to such subtlety.

Monday, February 14, 2011

1998 Shui Lan Yin, Menghai

Let's set the mood for this tea, shall we?  To start, get this playing low and soft in the background (last night's Grammy winner for Best New Artist, and from nearby Portland).  This is the song that kept playing through my head as I sipped on this tea that was just as cool, dark and sultry.

I'm tempted just to leave the description at that.  The song seems to describe it so well.  But jazz isn't everyone's cup of tea (oy... bad puns are SO not befitting, sorry) so I'll add a few words.  First, the cup -- my other purchase from D. Michael Coffee.  I had a hard time capturing the splatter of graphite gray on the side, but after fiddling around with the colors in Photoshop this was my best effort to portray the true color, though in reality it's a little more gray and a little less red than this.

I didn't know what tea I was going to have today.  Hadn't really given it much thought but as I was setting up for my session the doorbell rang with a package from The Essence of Tea.  In it was tucked this sample of a 1998 Menghai "Shui Lan Yin" seemingly saying "pick me!"  Talk about things falling into your lap.  But in addition to the Spalding song above, another thing making the rounds in my head were a couple of quotes:

"A concept is a thought, and a thought is a word; a word is a sound, and a sound is a pulsation. What comes before the pulsation? Stillness. Therefore a concept is nothing but an objectifying of stillness. In reality all that appears is an expression of stillness."  -- Jean Klein

"Constantly deconstructing, investigating keenly, not even the slightest substance can be found; And in the undivided moment of nondual perception we abide in the natural state of perfection."  -- Longchenpa

Here we (I) go again, deconstructing and keenly investigating the experience of the tea I'm drinking.  I'm aware of the barrier I'm placing to the pure experience by way of categorizing and articulating it all.  And yet I feel as though it's a worthy practice toward the development of awareness.  At least on some level.  Perhaps someday I'll abandon the naming and deconstructing altogether.  But not yet.  For now, I'm trying (perhaps futilely) to strike a balance between simple open awareness (as close as I can come) and conditional discernment as I learn about tea.

The soup was deep dark brown with an orange hue and the aromas were equally dark -- leather, tobacco, unsweetened cocoa, dark cherry, molasses (not in that order, these are just the predominant descriptors in my notes).  All through the session I found a dry, almost tannic mouthfeel, although there was no astringency present.  The aftertaste reminded me of dark unsweetened cocoa, pleasantly bitter and drying with distant notes of smoke.  This tea had me thinking of that '92 ripe puerh I had recently from Bana, with its dark chocolate notes and its deep melting richness.  Although I wasn't moved to add any rice milk to this one (I think I just heard shah8 breathe a sigh of relief there) I did pull out some of my darkest chocolate for a little taste compare, some 85% Michel Cluizel "Grand Noir."  Yes, similar in taste although the tea has a bit more fruit to it (comparatively) and of course more of that dark smokey tobacco tea taste, though both equally dry and dark.  I was wishing I had some darker chocolate to compare.  Something less sweet, in the 95% range.  I bet the taste profiles would be even closer.

The qi was nice with this one, too.  Then again, I never know how much of that is due to the tea and how much is due to the general mood I bring to the session or the influence of things like having listened to Spalding's song right before sitting down.  But the whole experience with this tea was one of laid-back, all-is-well-with-the-world rightness.  Very pleasant.

The spent leaves were nearly black and very strong to the touch.  I didn't find much in the way of whole leaves but the feel of them had me thinking there must be some old tea tree material present.

Friday, February 11, 2011

2010 Hai Lang Hao "Lao Ban Zhang Gu Shu" Ancient Arbor Raw Puerh

What could a tea taste like that was pressed less than a year ago and yet is commanding the astronomical price of $219 per cake?  I'm really curious to know, so I ordered a sample of this from Yunnan Sourcing.  Got my box just yesterday, all squashed and misshapen, obviously opened and re-closed with bright green tape that reads "Examined by US Customs and Border Protection."  They even slashed open a couple of the sample packets inside and didn't bother to re-close them, aside from another big piece of green tape crudely wrapped around a couple of packets.  Ouch.  I have such a dislike for the kind of apathetic, brute and sometimes even downright abusive treatment this country's border police is known to engage in.  Although my beat-up little box of slashed-open tea is a pretty minor offense, I've heard too many stories from friends of mine living just north of the border in Canada.  It makes me bristle at the sight of my mutilated package.

This Hai Lang Hao sample packet was not one that was slashed open, so none of the contents had spilled out.  When I opened it this morning, knowing the price I paid for it, I was a little put off to find that it contained a large amount of loose broken leaves and crumbs.  But maybe it got a little rough treatment from the border patrol?  Maybe it started it's journey from Yunnan Sourcing more intact?  I hope so.  For my session this morning I was able to pull out a good serving's worth of intact leaves, but I won't get quite as many sessions out of this sample as I would have hoped.  A lot of it ended up in my growing cup of crumbs and fannings.

I'll admit right up front.  I couldn't help but have some high expectations for this tea given it's price.  Still, I tried to keep an open mind as best I could.  The dried leaves were smaller than I expected.  Not quite as meaty as I thought they'd be.  The description on the YS site says it was harvested from the oldest trees in Lao Ban Zhang village, from 500 to 700 years old.  I had thought that leaves from very old trees like that were generally larger and meatier.  Maybe I have some more learning to do.  But they were plenty full of those little white hairs you see sometimes.  Some flashing silver here and there, and generally a dark rich greenish-black.

The first aromas out of the cup and even in the wenxiangbei were all fresh green hay with a bit of floral behind it, which is pretty common for such a recently pressed cake.  Perhaps this aroma was a bit more assertive than most, but there it was.  I know it'll take a few infusions to reveal what's underneath.  The color of the liquor is all yellow with a slight bit of haze to it.  Even though I carefully picked out only the largest intact leaves for the gaiwan, I kept getting a lot of crumb-like debris with each infusion that lasted until about the 5th infusion, when the debris finally stopped showing up in the bottom of my cup.

The taste was very interesting, and a new experience for me.  The first thing to hit me was a sweetness on the tip of my tongue which was quickly overwhelmed by a bitterness in the back of my mouth.  But it wasn't a bitter bitterness (this is going to be hard to describe, I can tell).  It wasn't the kind of bitter that makes you pucker or that causes a lot of dryness to the mouth.  And yet it was very clearly bitter.  I remember reading somewhere on the internet about the different kinds of 'bitter' that can be found in a tea.  I suspect this is the kind that you want.  The desirable kind of bitter.  It was actually very pleasant, but I have no other word to describe it than bitter.  In addition to the sweet at the tip of the tongue and the predominant bitter filling the whole of the mouth (starting at the back), there was also a butter quality mid-tongue.  A very interesting flavor profile, and one I've never come across before.  Usually I get the bitter first and *then* the sweet.  But this was all turned around.

As the infusions increased in number the aroma showed a bit more personality.  Sometimes I'd get cigarette smoke and sometimes I'd swear that I sensed notes of grape-like fruit.  There was also plenty of butter aroma present in the later infusions.  The mouth feel was interesting, too.  A soft smoothness to it.  The taste profile followed the same pattern from the start -- first a sweetness at the tip of the tongue and behind the lower front teeth, then the mouth filling with that pleasant bitter quality with some butter in the middle.

And the qi?  Certainly there was some present.  I wouldn't say it was huge, but then I've been questioning myself lately about this matter of sensing qi.  Maybe I'm less sensitive to certain kinds of qi that others feel quite strongly?  Because there have been several teas that some feel a lot of qi with and which I don't feel much at all.  Then again, there are plenty of teas that move deeply inside me with either a warmth or a coolness or a distinct floatiness or even a spiritual groundedness.  So its a bit of a puzzlement to me that I'm paying attention to.

The spent leaves were interesting.  Plenty of whole leaves, as well as lots of chopped up ones.  But I was expecting to find meatier leaves and stronger spines, as I've gotten the idea that this is a sure sign of truly old tea trees.  These leaves were more tender than I expected, though some of the spines were definitely the stronger type.  But perhaps these are younger tip-growth leaves from old trees?  Maybe someone with more tea know-how can educate me on this matter :)

Is this tea worth the $219 per cake asking price?  Personally I'm not the least bit inclined to spring for it.  I can only guess that its fetching such a high price on pure speculation alone.  I really don't have the experience or know-how to determine if this tea is a great candidate for potential future awesomeness (which the price seems to indicate) or if its just enjoying it's placement in stratospherically-priced tea thanks to mostly hype.  Even if it was the former, and this tea becomes something truly special in 10 or 20 years, I still wouldn't spring for it.  There are too many great teas to be had that already have a good 10 years on them which can be bought for well under $219.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

2001 Jin Chang Hao Yi Wu

To truly enjoy a great cup of tea, we should be there with the tea--not off thinking about the past or the future... even what we will say about the tea.   - Master Ling Ping Xiang*
(*fantastic quote pilfered from Cloud Mountain Tea's Steepster profile page)

I've been thinking a lot about this whole blogging-about-tea matter.  What's said in the quote above is something that's occurred to me often.  What am I doing sitting here writing about tea?  I'm no tea master.  My experience with tea is a little drop in a bucket compared to many, particularly many who write blogs like this.  Not only is my experience with tea very minor, my skill at brewing it is just as "beginner."  I can in no way speak with authority about tea except to speak to my own experience and learning.  Which is why I started this blog, at all.  As a way to deepen my experience and learning about tea.  As with anything, mastery only comes with a tremendous amount of practice, experience and mindfulness to moments.  So my writing about tea here is just that -- a way to facilitate my own awareness and mindfulness to the moment, and to the whole wide experience of drinking tea.  

I should also note it's not my intention to "recommend" teas.  While there might be a few I'd challenge anyone not to be impressed with, for the most part it's all so very subjective.  Even my own taste preference from one session to the next with the exact same tea is known to change.  I should probably also confess (if you haven't figured this out already), I'm prone to passionate swings toward the grand and profound.  That's just how I am, and I confess I rather prefer it this way, even though my non-dual and Zen teachers constantly warn against such extremes.  But I'm far too enamored with Life to sit back striving to quietly observe and appreciate.  I actually welcome the sometimes painful lessons borne of getting carried away.

Alright, onto my tea choice for today -- a sample from The Essence of Tea's current selection, the 2001 Jin Chang Hao Yi Wu raw puerh, served up in a lovely and humble Petr Novak tea bowl.  I was lucky to acquire a couple of Petr's bowls from a recent online sale through the Life in Teacup blog.  This one is titled "Prairie Hay teacup," though I notice Petr didn't sign the bottom of this one making me wonder if its a particularly early piece.  A rough red earthenware clay body with a beautiful glaze of cream and rusty oranges.  I love the drips around the edge and the mottling of the interior.  I'd also love to know more about this glaze.  The thought of preparing recipes of minerals and chemicals, applying these to pots, and then the resulting transformations with the right application of intense heat... well, that's yet another matter that sends me off into fits of passionate enthusiasm :)

What to say about this tea?  I'm almost afraid to start because it was one of the most nuanced and constantly changing teas I've had to date.  To tell you the initial aroma was "very nutty" (which is was) is like describing a sunset as "pink."  Sunsets are so much more than pink.  There's the constant change and mutation of colors running the full gamut of 'pink,' not to mention the important factor of time, each moment different from the next in ways that are impossible to enumerate.  "Pink" doesn't even begin to describe, let alone describe at all...  *sigh*  But I'll try and do my best...

So yes, the first aroma out of the gate was nutty and sweet, with fruit around the edges, which soon moved predominantly to fruit, and then all too soon lingered off to not much big scent, at all.  This was a pattern of this tea, it turned out.  After each infusion the aroma would articulate itself (with terrific depth and complexity, changing with each moment) for only a short time before pulling back to a certain quietness.  A first infusion of 7 seconds.. already I'm having a hard time naming the fragrance notes in this tea.  While it's certainly recognizable as a sheng aroma, it carries a fragrance that's all its own.  Dry wood?  Yes, definitely lots of wood.  I recently spent some time in a wood shop that had all sorts of exotic wood lying around and this tea takes me back there.  The taste was woody forest, as well.  Also quiet.  Serene.

I must say I like the shape of Petr's tea bowl.  This is my first time drinking out of cup of this shape, wide and open like this.  I like how it presents the tea to my lips and fills my visual field as I sip.  I also like how it requires two hands to hold it up, reminiscent of an offering.  The mottled inner glaze of creams and oranges perfectly complements the color of the tea, as well.  Very nice.

Second infusion, 10 seconds -- the aroma wakes up now with sweet plummy fruits, again articulating itself with a (dare I say?) wise presence before lingering off with hints of floral.  I actually like how this tea is not so full of talk.  It offers what it has in the moment, speaking with impressive eloquence and then quieting down to a soft whisper.  Come to think of it, I like people who speak this way, too.  They seem to know something I wish I knew as well.  There's a fruitiness in the flavor now and a lovely hui gan is filling my mouth and throat and returning on my breath, filling my head and sinuses with a floral quality that includes plum around the edges.

Third infusion, 10 seconds again -- the aroma is so complex and ever changing.  I can't pin it down to any one thing.  Moment to moment, each is different, a character all its own.  Still, my notes on this tea show my effort -- woods initially, plenty of fruit but not acidic.. more soft and almost flowery, some sugar notes show up here and there.  Ghostly shadows of camphor at the edge now and then.  A very nuanced tea.  The taste is delicious, as well.  Clean, woody, fresh.  This is truly an introspective tea (my favorite kind).  I'm loving the plummy floral return that's filling my head and carrying on my breath.  There's a nice qi with this one, as well.  Not too overpowering, but mellow and calming.  This tea feels like it has some wisdom to it and the qi almost seems to impart that to me physically.

Fourth infusion, another 10 seconds.  I'm surprised at how I'm led to keep the infusions short, and could probably even go shorter.  Clearly a powerful tea for what it offers.  It was about at this point that I gave up searching for descriptors and decided to just sit back and open to what was there.  My words and categorizations were only muddying things, it seemed.  Suffice it to say this was a very beautiful tea, both in fragrance, taste and qi, with a character all its own.  A long lasting and beautiful hui gan, and a long lasting tea that just kept giving and giving.  I never did reach the end of what it had to offer.  I finally had to get on with my day.

Examining the spent leaves showed plenty of strength and vigor to them.  Lots of large whole leaves, all of them strong with good spines.  I am blessed for having had this tea today.  Mudkip agrees, lying back in my little morning of bliss and giving her full approval next to the sample bag :)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Shu to shu

What a great morning of tea fun and deliciousness!  Maybe a little heretical experimentation too, but I'll get to that soon enough.  First, let me introduce my new tea cup, a yunomi by Colorado artist D. Michael Coffee.  Although he makes beautiful functional ware with a wide vocabulary of glaze work (you can purchase some of his work at his etsy shop here), he also does impressive sculptural pieces and 2-D prints, as well.  His work is well worth seeking out.  I purchased this cup and one other from him.  I'm definitely going to keep an eye on his work.  Good quality with a great eye toward the kind of organic wabi sabi beauty that never ceases pleasing the eye.

I love how the green glaze of the cup echoes the deep wet greens of the NW

Inspired by MattCha's recent post about a delicious shu he sampled, and feeling more in the mood for something smooth and maybe a little sweet, I nosed through my sample packets for some shupu.  I decided to try out something from Hou De's selection, an 80's CNNP Shin Ya loose cooked puerh, from the Guang Dong Factory.  As I poured a little from the package it reminded me a lot of the gong ting I have from New Century Tea Gallery.  Worried that it might also carry the super strong earthy taste of the gong ting I put a little less into the gaiwan than I might have normally.

The initial aroma was reminiscent of that wet storage smell from the thick papered MengKu from my last tea session, although it wasn't quite so strong and was mixed in with plenty of dark sweet earth.  I did a quick 5-second steep, poured the watery espresso-colored liquid and gave it a taste.  I was surprised to find a light sweet sensation bouncing around in my mouth.  But it was very subtle, more "sensation of sweet" than sweet itself.  The color of the liquor was a bit on the light side for what I'd expect from a shu as well, so I decided to add some more leaves to the gaiwan and do a bit longer infusion.

About 12 seconds this time for steeping.  The smell and taste is all dark smooth earth and I'm surprised at a bit of dryness at the back of my tongue.  Not what I would expect from a shu.  The sweet sensation isn't present this time and I wonder if a lighter hand with the infusion time will bring it back, so I brew another 5-second infusion.  Yes, that subtle sweet sensation is back, but it's light and you really need to pay attention to feel it.  The aroma reveals a sweet maltiness at the very edges, but again it's extremely subtle.  For the most part, this tea is all dark smooth earth.  Not particularly complex.  Reminds me a lot of the gong ting except maybe not quite as dark and intense.  I brew a few more infusions of varying length, but I'm not finding myself all that excited or interested in this tea.

Feeling a little bored and unfulfilled I decide to pull out another shupu sample to do a taste comparison.  Linda Louie of Bana Tea Company sent me a few shu samples some time ago and I sort through them to choose.  One is a loose cooked shu with just some handwriting describing it as a 1992 Ripe Puerh.  It looks similar to the 80's CNNP and probably only a few years younger -- a great candidate for a taste-and-compare.

The dry leaves are just a tad bit larger than the CNNP but otherwise look the same.  Load up the gaiwan, do a rinse and it's time for that first whiff.  Wow!!  Big difference!  "Chocolate butter cake" is the first thing to come to mind, but this is no sugary-sweet brew.  It's much more unsweetened cocoa and butter than sticky sweet cake.  Not "sweet" so much as deep yummy richness.  Plenty of coffee and dark wood, as well.  Some distant fruit around the edges.  Wonderfully complex, I can hardly pull myself away from taking in the many fragrances.  A first infusion of 5 seconds -- the liquor pours dark like the CNNP, but is much warmer in tone.  More deep oranges and reds while the CNNP was more in the plain-brown category.  Like the aroma, the taste is pleasant and strong with lots of unsweetened cocoa and coffee, lingering off slowly after each sip.  This is the kind of tea that Seattle-ites could go nuts for.  Dark and rich, like some kind of rare, unique and hard-to-find sustainably-sourced coffee.  With the right packaging and savvy marketing this stuff could become a local legend, I have no doubt.

Another 5-second brew and I'm detecting vanilla notes now as well as high fruity tobacco.  It's got me thinking of mole' sauce, not in the aroma or taste but in how so many flavor notes are present that are normally associated with sweet, yet this is decidedly savory.  Deep roasted coffee, dark cocoa powder, dark spices and tobacco.  So rich and complex.  I'm hugely tempted to try adding a bit of cream to it just to spread and round out the flavors slightly.

(warning: Chinese tea blasphemy, but oh so good)
7-seconds this time, the aroma starts off with more sweet creamy earth this time, then heads into coffee and cocoa.  As the leaves cool a fruitiness arises, like tart coffee berries.  I pour it into two cups this time.  I've got to try out the cream idea!  Tried some 2% milk first.  Interesting but not enough to make me a convert.  Some slight banana notes show up in the taste, interestingly.  With the next infusion I try some plain rice milk instead of cow's milk, thinking the slight sweetness of the rice would be a good thing.  *YES*  This is definitely the way to go (rice milk over cow's milk).  I wouldn't describe it as sweet-tasting, but the natural sweetness of the rice milk complements the tea nicely.  Yum!  There's a bit of tropical fruitiness that's wonderful, too.  But this tea is just as good sans milk.  I spend the next few infusions drinking it both ways.  They're both so good.

Overall, this 1992 Ripe Puerh from Bana is a pure delight.  The kind of tea that makes me lose all sense of time as I get lost in the tastes and aromas and complexity of it.  I don't see it listed on Bana's website, though.  I don't know if this was just something extra they sent me because I tend to buy a lot from them, or if it's yet to appear as one of their ripe puerh selections.  I'd love to have more than just a sample of this one.

Friday, February 4, 2011

2001 MengKu "Yuan Yieh Xian" ("Original Aroma From Wild") of MengSa Mountain, thin vs. thick paper versions

I was up very early this morning and have been waiting to do the big comparison of this notorious puerh.  It's a dark gray typical Seattle winter day today.  Not much sun out, so my apologies up front for the wonky color in some of these photos (like this one).

This is the 2001 MengKu "Yuan Yieh Xian" (or "Yuanyexiang") cake, which appears to have been reviewed by everyone and their cousin.  I managed to find myself a little bit of each version (thick and thin papered) and have been curious to taste these for myself, particularly for what it could teach me about the differences that wet versus dry storage can bring to a tea.  MarshalN recently posted a very insightful discussion about possible confusions of the term "wet storage" which can be found here and makes for good reading.  For my own purposes in this tasting I'll simply refer to the wet (or traditionally) stored cake as "thick" (referring to it's distinctive thick paper wrap) and the dry stored cake as "thin" (being the thin-papered version of the two).  I purchased a sample of the thick-papered version from Hou De, and the thin-papered version from Bana Tea Company.  Bana labels this cake as "2001 Original Aroma From Wild", which is also the title found in Cloud's big review of this cake, here.  In addition to samples, Bana also has a few of these cakes for sale and they're not cheap.  I found a Taobao vendor selling the thin-papered version for a bit less, but once you factor in shipping costs it's not that much less than Bana's listing price.

Thick paper version on left, thin on right
Appearance: I was fortunate to get a nice big chunk of this cake (thick) from Hou De that also included the neifei, so I was able to compare them between the thick and thin papered versions.  The central Chinese character on the neifei of the thick papered version is a very faded silver gray color.  So faded, in fact, that it was only faintly visible.  The neifei on the thin paper version doesn't show the same degree of fading.  This difference of fading also seems to be present on this side-by-side comparison photo below, from Cloud's review of these cakes.  I suppose it can be assumed that the more humid storage environment has degraded the silver ink to some extent.  Also, the thick paper version is predictably a shade darker than the thin dry-stored version, and also a bit more "stuck together," as seen -- 
Comparison from my own samples (thick version on left)
(Photo from Cloud's Tea Collection review page)
After about a 15-second rinse I went to take in the aromas.  A clear difference between the two.  The thick papered version smells musty and a bit sour, an aroma that's nowhere present in the thin version.  The thin, on the other hand, smells predominantly of camphor with clean leather and wood, and a brief and faint hint of fruity undertones.  The first infusion of about 6-seconds shows a difference in color, with the thick version pouring darker by a few shades.

Thin version on left, thick version on right
Taste:  The thick is smooth and woody with strong overtones of wet storage smell.  The taste of the thin version is a little more dimensional, plenty of clean wood with some higher taste notes that the thick version lacked.  The thin also carries a bit more ku with it.

Second infusion, 8 seconds:  aroma of the thin is strong camphor and sweet woods.  The thick still smells strongly of wet storage reminding me distinctly of old socks, although there's a bit of that minty pine-like camphor underneath.  Taste-wise, the thick is again predominant with old socks although there's more dark wood and maybe a hint of tobacco underneath.  The thin again excels with much rounder flavor, reaching both low and high notes.  There's more mouth activity with the thin, as well.  More ku and resulting salivation.  It shows a good hui gan down into my throat with a simultaneous warm/cool sensation.

Thin on left, thick on right
Third infusion, 10 seconds:  The aroma of the thick paper version is finally losing the wet storage smell.  It's all dark sweet woods now, revealing more of that pine-y/camphor aroma present in the thin version.  In fact, between the two (and thanks to my having spent the first half of my life on the dry east side of the Cascade mountain range and the last couple decades here on the wet west side), I find the smell of the thick version reminiscent of the hemlock and cedar-heavy wet forests of the west side of the mountains, while the thin version reminds me very much of the dry long-needled ponderosa pine forests of the drier eastern slopes.  The thin version also carries strong scents of mushroom and pine pollen.  In taste, the thick is smooth wood with a tiny bit of rough dryness on the tongue and top of the mouth.  The thin displays clean airy woods and mushroom, again showing more activity in the mouth, with more ku and stronger hui gan that returns camphor on the breath with a hint of sweet around the edges.  I'm noticing some movement of qi as well, more so with the thin than with the thick.

Thick on left, thin on right
Fourth infusion, 15 seconds:  Every time I go to take in the aroma of the thin version I feel as though I'm cooking.  It's heavy with rosemary and mushrooms.  The thick version is best described at this point as "wet leather shoes and NW forest" with some camphor tucked in.  These two versions are settling into their general characters now.  The thick is all lower deep notes of dark wet forest, while the thin is more rounded, hitting both low and high notes with airy pollen-laden pine and savory mushroom.  I'm paying more attention to the movement of qi now and finding a similar story here.  The thick goes low and deep, very concentrated.  After sitting with cup after cup I'm aware of a quiet pool of warmth in the lower center of my torso with the thick.  In contrast, the thin version also shows strong qi but it's far more penetrating, not only inhabiting my torso but also extending up into my head and ears and out through the arms.  Throughout the rest of this tea session I kept testing this again and again and the difference was clear.  The qi of the thin version was much more active and penetrating, while the thick version was more low, concentrated and still.

I sat for several more infusions of each of these.  Both were enjoyable in their own right but if I were pressed to choose a favorite it would definitely be the thin papered version.  Overall I found that it had a broader taste profile and a more active qi.  Living in the Northwest I feel quite water-logged as it is, and while I love all things dark and forested the thick papered version was such a concentration of it.  Maybe if I lived somewhere drier I'd be more inclined to choose the thick-papered version as a favorite for how it reminds me of home.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Teaware kitsch

A beautiful blue-sky day in Seattle.  Spring comes early in the Northwest.  The early flowering trees are already budding out and the daffodils have broken ground getting ready for their appearance.  I love the turning of the seasons best -- winter to spring, summer to fall.

Took a break from puerh this morning.  The day was just too bright and my mood was yearning something that would open me to that.  Puerh just seemed a little too inward.  I still have some green teas sitting around from last year's pick though I worried they might have suffered some from the lack of freshness.  But it's all I had so I decided to find out.  Today's green tea, some An Ji Bai Cha from Jing Tea Shop, served in my fun new acquisitions -- a set of tea cups from a couple of long gone Chinese restaurants in central Oregon.  Totally kitsch and typical of restaurant cups, made from the kind of sturdy thick ceramic that says "I dare you to break me... go ahead, try."  Great for heat retention, as well as burning the crap out of your fingers when you try to drink out of them.

I decided to do another water experiment today, curious to know how tap-vs-bottled water would affect the taste of green tea, inspired by MarshalN's thoughts on the matter in his own water experimentations.  Predictably, the bottled water (Crystal Geyser again) pulled out more color from the leaves.  I'm assuming this water has a higher mineral content but I can't say for sure and I'm not going to go to the trouble to send away for their detailed water analysis report.  I'm less interested in the science of it all than in how it enhances my tea.  In the picture below the tea made with tap water is on the left, bottled spring water on the right --

MarshalN guessed that green tea would taste better with water of a lower mineral content and I would have to agree.  I found that the more viscous mouth feel of the bottled water tended to cover up the delicacy and sweetness of the tea.  As for taste and aroma the only difference I could detect was in terms of strength and concentration.  The bottled spring water just seemed like a more concentrated version of the tap water tea.  To test this I tried doing a comparative steeping where I infused the tap water leaves for twice as long as the bottled water and it seemed to confirm this, although the thicker mouth feel of the bottled water tea was distracting and made it hard to really compare taste subtleties.

One other thing I've been noticing with these experiments is that the bottled (presumably more "mineraled") water seems to make the tea leaves open up faster in the gaiwan.  This would make sense, I guess, in how it makes for a deeper color in the soup.