Monday, March 14, 2011

2008 Zhi Zheng "Xian Xiang"

What a darling little fellow.  Just 100 grams in all, like a paper-wrapped cookie.  The Zhi Zheng Tea Shop has produced a small series of these mini cakes (4 in all) but only this one remains, the rest having been sold out.

Some beautiful calligraphy by Li Chun Lin

There is much to appreciate about the aspirations of the Zhi Zheng folks.  Describing themselves as a "a young Sino-British company based in Jinghong" (I have no idea what "Sino" means) they offer a small and supposedly organic puer tea selection.  I particularly like the explanation of the meaning of their company name: "Zhi Zheng is a Chinese term which... conveys notions of a devotion to genuineness, morality and refinement and the pleasure that comes from that.  A sense of respect for the beauty inherent in nature and in simplicity."  I can appreciate these sentiments so I've been interested to try out some of their teas to see if they live up to the name.

This little cake reminds me of a flat squashed tuo.  Although it was hand pressed it wasn't quite as easy to break into individual leaves as a larger hand pressed beeng would be, but I managed.  After a good rinse the initial aroma was full of fruit with deepened dark sugar elements to it.  No hint of that green hay smell I often find in younger shengs.  The soup poured a slightly darkened yellow flax color.  Very clear.

When I sit down with a new tea I'm always wanting it to be special.  Always hopeful for something to sweep me off my feet.  I was watching this tendency in myself during this session and noting it's desire to judge and make declarations of 'good' and 'bad.'  But like anything in life, a tea just expresses itself as it is.  We can like or dislike it, but it is what it is.  Sometimes when drinking my tea I think of that Indian fable about three beings who drank from a single creek.  One was a god and he drank ambrosia; one was a man and he drank water; the third was a demon and he drank filth.  What you get is a function of your own state of awareness.  Does this mean even (supposedly) really "bad" tea can be drunk by certain individuals and perceived as heavenly?  Well, as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

I wish I could say my state of awareness is of the higher kind, but like the tea I simply am who I am.  Warts and all   :)

There were times when sipping this tea I found a nice depth to it, while other times the fragrance and taste felt flat to my senses.  Was it my lack of skill in brewing that was failing to bring out the best in this tea?  Or was the tea itself a bit unsettled in it's expression of it's character?   Hard for me to say.  In the best of moments this tea expressed a nice complexity of fragrance; mature fruit initially, with middle notes of dark sugars and a base arising from the wood/leather/tobacco camp.  But it lacked strength and longevity, giving way quickly (fragrance-wise).  In its lesser moments it was one-dimensional and not so interesting.  The taste was nothing too remarkable -- some good bitterness in the first cup that never reappeared thereafter, and some quiet plum flavors that arose at the back of the mouth long after the sip which was nice, but like the fragrance it lacked strength and longevity.  A nice unspecific qi with this one, just leaving me with a pleasant and mild overall buzz.  It also possessed some penetrating qualities about it, pulling up a bit of salivation around and under my tongue and leaving a particular "soft sand on the tongue" sensation in my mouth.  

. . .

People come here 

                                 and listen to my dharma words 

                                                                                   when all I really want to do 

                       is pour them a little tea.

                                                              -- Adyashanti

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Tea and stupas

I'm staying for the week in the Sonoma Valley of California.  What a beautiful place here.  The land itself is stunning enough without the jaw-dropping winery estates.  It's my first taste of traveling with tea and the challenges that brings.  Thankfully, I drove down so was able to pack along my electric tea kettle and trusty tea tray.

Inside my hotel room is a lovely book full of color photographs and descriptions of dozens of wineries.  As I was looking through it I couldn't help but notice the similarities between the photographs of grapevine fields and the pictures I've seen of plantation tea trees.  Although I love wines I don't drink them most everyday like I do tea.  I've often wondered if certain parts of the Northwest might be ideal for growing tea trees and I found myself re-imagining this pretty coffee table gift book full of photos of tea farms and tasting rooms and tea caves for aging.

I brought along a few samples for my trip, trying to pick out teas that might be facilitative for my purpose here (meditation retreat).  So far I've sampled some truly rich and pleasurable Essence of Tea selections, including the 1989 88QingBing and the 1990's Grand Yellow Label.  Already I'm checking my bank account to see how easily I can rationalize a purchase.  See what tasting these fine older teas does to you?  I did jot down my tasting notes for them, but somehow it seems trite to try and copy them here.  All I can say is, you owe it to yourself to taste some of these.  Fine tea, indeed.

Shunryu Suzuki-roshi stupa (Japanese)
The Sonoma Mountain Zen Center is here in these parts.  A surprisingly quiet and serene setting amongst all the winery fervor that abounds here.  It's been a pleasure to visit.  On the grounds of the place they have two stupas that are well worth the short walk to get to.  One is in honor of Japanese Zen priest, Shunryu Suzuki-roshi, and the other in honor of Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.  It was surprising for me to see the differences of style between the two, although each emanates it's own peacefulness.  I consider myself very fortunate to have spent time at each of these sites.  Being the tea-head I am, I thought about sneaking in a thermos of hot water and enjoying a bit of tea at the sites, but almost as soon as that thought appeared I dismissed it and felt a little guilty for entertaining such an idea.  These relic sites are very deeply revered.  You just don't skip down the path to have a picnic there.  But the spirit of these great teachers is with me as I enjoy my teas in the hotel room  :)

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche stupa (Tibetan)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Supermarket Pu-erh Smorgasbord (2009 BaDa Mountain Wild Arbor)

I was shopping at Uwajimaya the other day, Seattle's longtime destination for quality Asian groceries and goods.  Although there are bigger Asian supermarkets in the Puget Sound area, none have the history or status of Uwajimaya.  It's always fun to shop there.  Where else can you browse the vast fish selection next to a Korean nun, all in robes and a warm knitted skull cap to keep out the cold?  Or wait in line at the check-out observing the stately reverence given to an ancient-looking woman, all stooped over and barely 4 feet tall, yet still walking with a cane and writing her own checks (veeeerrrrryyyyy slowly!), being attended to not by daughters or paid caretakers, but by a couple of smartly dressed middle aged men?  This place has history to it and deep roots in the many Asian communities here.  

I wasn't there to buy tea and only wandered over to the tea aisle as an afterthought.  Shelves and shelves of colorful tins and packets, mostly greens and oolongs.  I thought I'd see if any of the tins or boxes had pu-erh in them (and there were a few) but was surprised to find a row of several full-sized pu-erh cakes and a couple of tuos.  I'd never seen these cakes there before.  They were all labeled with a company called Tienxi, but the cakes themselves included some familiar factories -- Xiaguan, Yongde, Mengku, Menghai.  Most were raw green pu-erhs.  One of the tuos was a shu that sounded really yummy by the description of it, but sadly it was all sold out (although there were plenty of green tuos left on the shelf).  The cakes were young; just a few years old, and not at all pricey.  I bought the most expensive one, which was hardly expensive at all -- the 2009 BaDa Mountain Wild Arbor, for $19.99.

"Best Before: 08/2012"... really?
Tienxi Company apparently contracts with various tea factories, acting as a middle-man broker between the factories and businesses like Uwajimaya who then carry their product line.  Interestingly, Tienxi is a local company, based in nearby Sammamish, a suburb town of Seattle.  I've never heard of this company before and know nothing more about them.  

In addition to the tea I picked up some good looking fruit.  Last year I took part in a pu-erh tasting of some special aged selections, and while the tea was wonderful, the "tea snacks" were abysmal, including a bowl of over-salted, highly processed, vaguely-cracker-like crunchies from a local discount grocery.  Ever since then I've given a lot of thought to this matter of tea snacks.  What foods complement tea?  For the most part I prefer to drink my tea without food, but when I have friends over it's nice to set out a few offerings.  I have a definite bias for fresh fruits or high quality chocolate (cheap waxy chocolate was another of the offerings at that tasting last year).  Little powdered mochi cakes are nice, too.  Uwajimaya always carries an interesting selection of all of these and I was lured by some of the exotic fruits.  I picked up a couple of deep red, spikey rambutan, some deep purple mangosteen, and an item I don't see there very often -- a dried persimmon, which was heavenly delicious.    

mmmm.. dried persimmon..

Onto the tea.  Expectedly, it opened with big green fresh hay, although there were deep floral overtones lurking in the aroma of the first few infusions that surprised me.  The soup poured a pretty and clear straw yellow.  I started with a 10 second infusion and found the taste surprisingly smooth and buttery.  No hint of astringency or bitterness.  I pushed the second infusion to 15 seconds, the third to 30 seconds and the fourth to 45, but I couldn't push this tea into any more than just a hint of bitter.  Fragrance-wise, while there was some floral present (mostly in the first few infusions) it settled into hearty vegetal notes of asparagus, cooked beans and mushrooms (the asparagus gave way by the 4th infusion, leaving savory beans and mushrooms).  

Undoubtedly the most note-worthy thing about this tea was how penetrating it was.  From the 2nd infusion on it continually sank deep into my mouth and throat, pulling up a surprising degree of salivation and a spreading warmth in my chest.  Some hui gan present as well, intially with floral on the breath but soon became more indistinct with a tingling and somewhat cooling sensation.  Was there a bitterness there?  I want to say there was, but it was so far to the back of the mouth and quickly sank deep into the tissues, transforming into a subtle sweetness, diving to a warmth in the chest, filling outwards and pulling significant salivation into my mouth.  A pretty decent puerh, I thought.  It left a nice clean sensation with me the rest of the day.  I have no idea if this one will age well, but for the price it's certainly a fine daily drinker.