Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shu surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

2005 Gan En Lao Banzhang

Sunny... kind of.  Warm... sort of.  But the house is so dark and the tea so warming and the body so longing for spring.  Seemed a good day for an outdoor tea session.  Today's tea of choice, the 2005 Gan En Lao Banzhang currently being offered at Essence of Tea.  This cake has a bit of celebrity to it, being featured in an excellent article about Banzhang teas, linked here, from The Leaf Magazine.  I've had teas marketed as Banzhang before and had been forming an opinion of them as characteristically potently bitter, but this tea (along with the article from The Leaf) has been an eye-opener.  I've been fortunate to recently pick up another cake featured in the article and look forward to comparing the two to further expand my understanding of Banzhang teas.

Initial aromas, both from the wenxiangbei and the yixing lid revealed rock sugar sweetness mingled with soft citrus kumquat yumminess.  Like inhaling candy (those chewy-sweet citrus-orange Botan Ame rice candies come to mind).  I brewed the leaves carefully and conservatively, still expecting a punch of bitterness despite the promises from the article, but infusion after infusion I found that any bitterness present was quite mild and seemed to bypass my tongue, instead settling deep in my throat as a sort of assertive dryness (not unpleasant).  Rather than a characteristically bitter brew, I found this tea to be wonderfully sweet in a very round and long-lasting way.  It was an interesting study in contrasts, with a deep dry bitter and simultaneous full wet sweet, reminding me of sweet tannic grape skins.  The long-lasting hui gan referenced in the article was certainly present, as well.  In fact, it was so persistent and lasting that it seemed to me to transcend the concept of "returning sweetness" as it was less about 'returning' anything and seemed more a nearly solid physical manifestation of how this tea expressed itself in the body.  Overall a very pleasant tea session.  Sweetness on the tongue and sweetness in the air and a satisfying calm pervading all  :)

All that arises 
is essentially no more real 
than a reflection, 
transparently pure and clear, 
beyond all definition 
or logical explanation. 

Yet the seeds of past action, 
karma, continue to cause 
further arising. 

Even so, 
know that all that exists 
is ultimately void of self-nature, 
utterly non-dual.

-- (words of the Buddha)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

1993 Menghai 7542

I probably shouldn't be titling this post with the tea I happen to be drinking today since I don't intend to write any tasting notes.  But it was definitely enjoyable :)   My tea sessions have become so full lately and, as a result, harder than ever to describe.  With really good teas like this I seem able to experience such a wide range of aroma, taste and feel.  I've given up (for now) trying to elucidate every last nuance and have taken to just sitting and enjoying what comes.  But I'm looking on this as part of the learning process, and nothing at all to do with having arrived at any sort of mastery (a joke to even think about).  As with anything that takes time to learn and appreciate, one goes through a series of rises and plateaus in the learning curve.  I think I'm just gliding along a plateau at the moment (and an early one, at that).  Its comforting, too, to have a bit of affirmation from tea masters of old -

No need to speak of 
Drink and
Your mind becomes bright.
 -- Seo Geo-jeong (1420-1488)

This wonderful quote begins the Forward of a book that Matt of Mattcha's blog is guiding those who are interested in a sort of online tea book club.  Like drinking tea, these old tea texts appear very straight-forward on the surface.  And they are.  But spend a bit of time sitting with them and it's possible for deeper nuances to be revealed.  I'm an eager student :)

Guinomi cup by Japanese ceramic artist, Seigan Yamane

Other tea-news from my table:  after hearing about it for longer than I care to admit, I finally made the trek to a nearby artesian well to gather some top quality water -- the Seattle-area's little mecca of can't-be-beat "living water."  It comes straight from the ground, pouring continuously from two spouts at a couple of gallons per minute, and its free for the taking.  Even better, the local water district routinely performs a full gamut of water quality tests on it, making these available to the public.  I'd heard it could get crowded there with lines of people but when I arrived early this morning there were just a few (me being the only non-Asian face in sight).  One man was filling bucket after bucket (the 5-gallon kind), loading them onto the back of his pick-up truck.  He easily had over 50 gallons!  But he was sweet as could be and made way for me to fill up my couple of one-gallon jugs from the second spout.

Not only have I decided to give this artesian well water a go, but I'm pulling out the yixing more and more, intent on learning it's ways and seasoning it to it's fullest potential.  So between the new water source and the new (-ish, for me) method of tea preparation, my learning curve is back to square one.  Or maybe not the 'absolute' square one, but I've got a lot to learn.
As always  :)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

1996 "Truly Simple Elegant" raw pu-erh

"Truly elegant" describes this tea so well, "simple" I'm not so sure of, unless it's referring to the perfectly balanced nature of this new selection from Bana Tea Company's offerings.  A pricey cake indeed, but clearly in a class by itself.  The leaves are single-mountain Yiwu variety, picked from old trees that hadn't been harvested for 40 years, near the Yiwu villages of Mahei and Luoshuidong.  The makers of this cake (the Lin brothers, teashop owners from Taiwan) were after a truly high quality artisan pu-erh done in the style of tea cakes produced by privately owned tea factories of the 1940's.  They even managed to locate and hire one of the last surviving tea masters from the Sungping Hao factory (a reputed tea factory from the 40's), Mr. Chiang Guan Xiu.  "Truly Simple Elegant" (Zhen Chun Ya Hao), is the result of their efforts.

Love the hand-written characters on the red label -- elegant, indeed.

I sat down with this one, pen and camera in hand, intent on doing a nice blog entry, but I confess to letting the photos and efforts at description subside not long into the session.  Just far too beautiful a tea to muddy with fussiness, but I managed to get a few good pictures.  Additionally, knowing I was in for an educational experience with this one I decided to dust off my yixing teapot and brew up two sessions of this tea simultaneously, one in the teapot and another in the gaiwan.  I was curious to know what the differences would be and this tea struck me as a perfect candidate for the lesson.

I do love my gaiwan and am quite comfortable brewing with it.  It gives me the opportunity to really enjoy the changing aromas of a tea, which is one of the things I love most about pu-erh.  I've used the teapot several times but find it a bit more intimidating, probably because I'm just not as familiar with it.  In a gaiwan I can gauge the progress of a steeping by the changing color of the soup, and the openness of the cup is perfect for taking in every last bit of aroma being offered.  But with a teapot it's like I'm brewing blind, unable to watch the change in the water, and getting a sense of the aromas is more challenging with the narrowness of the lid opening.  I end up doing a bit of battle with the concentrated surges of heat and moisture escaping from the opening as I try to take in the aromas.

A note about this little teapot -- I picked it up from Jing Tea Shop last year.  It's rather unique with it's little specks of yellow Duan Ni clay embedded in the red Xiao Hong Ni clay, but that's what I like about it, along with the very rounded organic shape.  Xiao Hong Ni is said to be a tender clay and well-suited to pu-erh and also oolong and red tea.  It pours beautifully too, smooth and even and taking it's time, and with no drips.  When I first got it I scoured the internet for information on seasoning yixing pots and spent a good couple days with the process.  And being the patina-lover I am, I confess to sometimes taking this teapot out and just pouring my favorite darker pu-erhs on it during a tea session, even though (gasp!) I was using a gaiwan to brew the tea.  And sometimes, when I've enjoyed a particularly good dark pu-erh, I've filled this teapot with the spent leaves, topped it with water and let it sit for a day.  (lol -- I feel like I'm in confession)

Alright then, onto the tea.  Right off the bat this tea exhibited a very clean and well-balanced aroma.  No strange or off-scents (apparently this tea has been fully dry stored).  Just an extremely well put-together fragrance swirling with all the best expressions of a good pu-erh -- sweet fruit, clean leather, smooth malt, carmelized sugar (and please know I'm reporting this in all humility, especially in light of the great discussions going on here and here about the matter of reporting tastes and doing "reviews").  The fragrances from the aroma cup were particularly pleasing, showing a very clear progression from "pure clean water" initially (not sure how else to describe it), to vanilla notes, then caramel, then butterscotch which deepened to terrific levels as the tea evaporated.

As the tea session progressed there were predictable differences of aroma between the gaiwan and the teapot.  In the past I've often felt that the teapot emphasized the woodier deeper notes of a pu-erh and sometimes even "swallowed up" the sweeter fruity notes that I love so well (another reason why I haven't reached more for the yixing).  But with this particular tea, the yixing took the sweeter notes and gave them a beautiful deep wine-infused character, along with some great depth of wood and clean leather notes.  It was really breathtaking honestly.  The aromas from the leaves in the gaiwan were beautiful too, but clearly higher in pitch and lacked the terrific depth from the yixing.

As I drank the different infusions of this tea I found the aromatic differences between the gaiwan and the yixing also extended to taste and feel.  It was subtle at first but grew more pronounced as the infusions increased in number.  The tea tasted and felt somehow deeper from the yixing.  Broader.

As for the tea itself, it was quite the experience.  Breaking it down into 'parts' seems an injustice, but I'll try to piece together a report.  First off, the mouth feel was beautiful and quite true to it's namesake -- elegant.  Soft and silky, thick but not too thick, coating the mouth in a very pleasing way.  Another thing that stood out for me was how deeply pure and clean this tea tasted and felt.  Even the aroma had this unique "clean pure water" aspect to it that I've never experienced before.  I've had teas that felt "clean" before, but this one was out of this world.  Oftentimes that clean sensation seems tied to how a tea pulls salivation from the mouth, but for as strange as it sounds this tea seemed beyond that, permeating 'clean' and 'pulling salivation' (so to speak) from my whole body.  Yeah I know, that sounds odd but it's the truth.  As the session progressed this whole-body permeation grew to the point where I actually felt like I was tasting this tea not just with my mouth but with my limbs and torso and even my non-physical faculties.

Which brings me to the matter of qi, because it all grew so naturally, from the wonderfully well-balanced aroma, to the broad depth of taste, to the far-reaching sense of pure and clean.  I first noticed it as a sense of great clarity and focus that was simultaneously grounded and solid.  Again, this was a first for me.  I've had plenty of teas with wonderful qi that have left me mellowed and wallowing in an all-is-well-with-the-world sense.  But I've never experienced tea qi that contributed to this kind of clarity and focus.  And not a caffeine-induced kind of hyper focus, either.  This was very different, more along the lines the 'clearer discernment', if that makes any sense, accompanied by a calm groundedness.

I know, I know... I'm waxing all poetic on this one, but I'm certain it deserves at least some of this.  I found the following quote somewhere once when looking for tea poetry.  I can think of no better summation of this tea than the following: the complete harmony of all elements; its definition includes 
sincerity. a sense of profound reverence toward all things, and is used by tea men to identify characteristics of humility and respect.
Sei...contains the thought of orderiness in life, cleanliness, and purity.
Jaku...means tranquillity, calm. 

These four are essential to tea.

Rand Castile, The Way of Tea