Wednesday, July 27, 2011

. . .

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

-- Antonio Machado

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

2009 Spring Jinggu Purple Bud Big Tree tuo

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

(image from JK Tea Shop website)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 21, 2011

雲腳, Feet of the Cloud

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

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

Flower reflection in the 80's Menghai Green

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

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

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Best visit, best hosts, Best Tea House

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

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

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

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

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

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

all the goodies I came home with

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

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