Saturday, May 13, 2017

Tea in the time of Trump

A friend recently commented to me how she’s noticed that her American friends have fallen largely silent on Facebook since the November election. I confess I’m one of them. The cacophony of panicked and desperate postings, interspersed with divisive rhetoric and delusional beliefs, is just too much. That’s not to say there isn’t good reason to be concerned, or to do your part to be involved, but I think most would agree that the past six months have left many of us bewildered, befuddled and shaking our heads in disbelief.

If there is any bit of silver lining to the circus that is the Trump presidency it is the call to rise above, to find clarity – not to retreat but to act from. There is a great need to put things in perspective, to seek balance and some bit of sanity amidst all the insanity that plays out on a daily basis in the news and on social media. Maybe this is why we see some tea bloggers coming out of retirement and resurrecting their sites? For myself, this is very much the case.

When looked at in the context of the shit show circus that is our current political climate, tea is a quietly potent act of resistance. Think about it. Most obviously, tea promotes good conversation and community, both of which are sorely needed today. But there’s more. A dedicated habit (a focused practice?) of gong fu style tea, where each infusion is paid attention to – the taste, the aroma, the feel in the body – is essentially the practice of mindfulness. When attention is placed in the experience of the here and now it gives the monkey mind some much-needed rest. And when the mind comes to rest on a regular basis, wonderful things happen. At the very least, it builds an inner ground of calmness and balance which colors all aspects of your life. It’s the clear antidote to the chaos and alarm that is blasted daily from social media and news sources. The more one can sit and “steep” in this kind of clarity, the more one can act from a place of wisdom and balance when actions are called for.

Vive la résistance! Vive la difference! Vive le thé!

This morning's act of 'tea resistance' landed a couple of truly amazing cakes to my table. It doesn't usually happen like this. Normally I'll pull some cakes from the cabinet or dig through the sample bags and end up with mostly 'okay' stuff. It's an educational thing for me at this point in my journey -- learning more about the nuances of tea, or about how a particular tea is aging. But today was one of those win-the-lottery kind of days. It started with the 2014 Du Quan sheng puerh from Essence of Tea.

Honestly, I don't like to drink really young puerh. Most of it wreaks havoc on my stomach, especially if I drink it day after day. But I have quite a lot of it (sigh) and find it interesting to follow the changes over time. This one is different. Right from the start, this tea shines as something out of the ordinary. It's only 3 years old, but nowhere is there any hint of that typical green hay aroma or stomach-eating roughness. The smell of the wet leaves after the first couple of rinses is deep and complex, coming off as surprisingly mature, a mixture of sweet fruit over a base of something more savory and meaty, even with a tiny bit of floral peeking around the edges here and there. The soup is silky thick in the mouth and the taste is full and well-rounded, with a soft and delightful spiciness at the top of the palate. In my notes I keep wanting to describe it as mature, but it has more to do with it's depth and full-bodied-ness than with the kind of maturity that comes with the passage of time (and I can't wait to see how this one evolves through the years). It's terrifically clean, too. I've had a lot of teas that I describe as clean, but this one is deliciously clean. Juicy clean.

But it doesn't end there. It just kept giving, scoring a 10 on all points. A deep full-body energy and a wonderful sweetness growing at the back of the mouth as the session continued, a fantastic sheng all around. That I happened to pick up a tong of this back when it was first introduced is one of those lucky strikes of my tea-buying days.

(regarding storage, I should probably clarify my last "all my teas are sealed" post. When it comes to whole tongs I keep them in their bamboo wrap, tucked away in the pumidor. Also, as I pull sealed cakes from the cabinet for tasting, I'll put them back in the pumidor without the sealed wrap until I accumulate enough of them to warrant pulling out the impulse sealer and sealing them all up again. I figure they benefit from the exposure to the warm humid environment for a time before getting sealed back up again. So far this seems to be working out very nicely.)

I finished my session today with a longtime favorite, the 1999 Da Du Gan sheng puerh. This is the cake that started it all for me. Not the start of my love for puerh, but the start of that 'puerh addicts anonymous' kind of addiction that leads to owning a truly ridiculous amount of tea. I picked this up from Hou De and still kick myself for not grabbing both of the last two that were for sale at that time.

This tea has plenty going for it, but most notable for me is how it seems to pull salivation into the mouth and sweat to the skin. I experienced this the first time I tasted it and it still happens to this day. The soup is syrupy thick and the tea carries plenty of qi, as well. The aroma after the first rinse is a strong perfumed camphor with sweet fruit underneath, and the vapors from the empty tea cup make me swoon, with big hits of vanilla mixed with a bit of floral. Lovely. I've dipped into this cake plenty of times through the years. The original paper wrapper, which was thin to begin with, has all but disintegrated, so now I keep it double-wrapped with a sturdier paper wrap holding it all together.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Puerh addicts anonymous

Hello, my name is ltpr (okay, it's really bev) and I am a tea addict. It's been four years since my last purchase. ... Alright, so it's been one day. I fell off the wagon. I was getting tired of drinking all by my lonesome and started venturing out again for sessions with friends. Then I started reading the groups and blogs. You all know what that means. I'm as good as a recovering alcoholic sitting down at a bar. *sigh* It's certainly not as though I need any more tea! I could maintain a nice little teashop for many years on the purchases I've made.

a working tea room - taste-test cakes are piling up

But I've missed the camaraderie of the tea community. I admit it. There are plenty of great new groups and blogs, too. No way I could add to any of that (not that I even want to), but blogging is its own pleasure, and I welcome the connections and friendships made through them. So I figured I'd update this long-defunct little corner of the tea blogosphere and maybe even add some more tastings notes. But here's the deal -- I'm one of those intuitive types (Rules? We don't need no stinkin rules!). I don't measure out my leaves, though I used to. I don't check the temperature of the water. Used to do that, too, but no more. Kudos to those that do, but I'm done with that. I don't even count the seconds on my steepings anymore. I go by taste, smell, feel. I like it better this way. Besides, it's all in keeping with the whole "listening to the leaves" theme, which suits me just fine. So if you're looking for exact parameters on how I'm brewing my teas, you'll have to look elsewhere. I was reading the comments on a tea blog somewhere, and someone was making the case for the merit of a more narrative approach to tastings notes, and I like that a lot. Maybe it's a female thing, but it's definitely right up my alley.

No doubt the most asked-about part of my blog is the whole pumidor project thing, so I figured I'd update that here. I'm not one of those who will declare what's absolutely right and absolutely wrong. Each to his own, I say. You want to build a pumidor with X humidity and Y temperature? Go for it. The nice thing about people in puerh-drinking circles is that they tend to be pretty good at taking notes, which will serve you well as you search out the best storage strategy. I still use my pumidor but, as you know, I started experimenting with sealing up my tea cakes about four years ago. For a while I would keep multiples of the same cake in different storage environments. Some I would leave in a plain cabinet (no humidity/temp controls), some I would stash in the pumidor (with the humidity set at around 60 to 65, in a room where the temperature fluctuates between 70-80F), and some I would seal up in food-safe shrink-wrap plastic. After sampling and comparing over the course of a couple of years I found that (for me anyway) the sealed tea route was the way to go. I can even now report that the teas do still definitely age. But I still keep the sealed beengs stashed in the pumidor (with the humidifier and computer fans still running). The shrink wrap still has some small bit of permeability to it, so I figure it's better to keep them in that environment than to set them out in the dry air of my house. Besides, I have this beautiful pumidor tea cabinet and I might as well put it to use!

sweet little plate found on eBay recently

Onto the tasting notes. Over the years I've fallen into my own system of keeping track of my teas. Gone are the fancy little handmade paper notebooks, each page carefully labeled with the date, the name of the tea and exhaustively detailed notes about how many steepings, how long each was steeped for, what kind of kettle/water/temperature was used, on and on and on. It was a great learning tool but honestly really sucked for keeping my notes all together for one tea. Who wants to sit there flipping through page after page, trying to find the previous notes for a particular tea? Not me. Then, there was a short stint where I tried keeping my notes in digital form, adding them to the purchase files I keep for each tea in my collection. But something about having my computer open at the tea table to type out notes as I sipped just took away from the enjoyment for me.

Finally, I found a solution that works really well for me (for the time being, anyway) -- sticky notes. I jot down my tasting notes (in very abbreviated form, but enough to tell me what I need to know) and then just seal them right up with the tea when I'm done. I've been doing this since I began sealing the teas, about four years ago. Now when I head to the pumidor to pull out beengs to taste I can see immediately what my previous notes were by just flipping the cakes over and reading them through the plastic. I can also see at a glance how the tea has been progressing and aging. So far it's been great, but some of my cakes have multiple Post-Its of tasting notes, and I can see that I may someday have to figure out a better way. But for now it's perfect.

I thought it might be interesting (to some of you anyway) to get a peek at the progression of tasting notes for a certain tea. Like I mentioned already, I keep things brief these days. When I sit down with a tea I'm looking at things like aroma (one of my most favorite aspects of puerh, or any tea for that matter), mouthfeel, energy and qi. Taste is part of it, too, but that is perhaps the most changeable of all the characteristics I take note of. Aroma changes with time too, but somehow I find that aroma tells me more about where a tea is at, and where it's going, than taste does. I also fell into this habit of distinguishing between what I call 'energy' and 'qi'. Some might argue it's the same thing, but I find that the energy of tea is felt more solidly in the flesh and bone of the body, while a tea's qi is more... hmmm... affective? No, that's not quite the right word, but while the qi may also be felt some in the flesh and bone, it leans more heavily into something 'other'. I'll just leave it at that. Looking over years of tasting notes now, it's clear to me that these aspects of energy, qi and mouthfeel are the most enduring over time, with things like aroma and taste providing what seems to me the frosting on the cake.

This morning I sat with three teas from my collection. I'll add the previous tasting notes, as well, because I think it paints a much bigger picture. I'll also make note of the age of the tea next to the tasting date.

teas on today's docket

First up was a 2003 Dayi Organic Banzhang (sheng). Curious how the aroma seemed to indicate more maturity in 2015 than in 2017. Might be due to the sealing, but taste/feel-wise the further aging was more apparent in 2017:

4-25-13 (10 yrs): Aroma is still quite green with granny powder overtones. Good body with something funky. Light energy. 
3-20-15 (12 yrs): Aroma shows bright aged fruit on top of woodiness, indicative of some aging. Very nice aroma. Taste is fruity with some age showing, definitely turning the corner from young to displaying a bit more maturity. Energy is strong and apparent, spreads through the chest. Mouthfeel is thin, but this tea shows strongly and favorably in other areas. 
4-30-17 (14 yrs): Aroma shows plenty of bright green hay. Astringent in the nose, turning to just-ripening tree fruit upon cooling. 2nd rinse is much more plummy with some minerality supporting. Taste presents a good tea base, hinting at a future of nice woodiness. Clearly past its early youth but plenty of maturity yet to develop. Nice energy fills the chest. 3rd infusion shows that dry sweet powder in the aroma. Warm and spreading in the chest. Thin in the mouth but plenty else to enjoy. Qi is gentle but apparent, comes on slow but builds fast. 

Next up was a 1998 Gan Xiang Jiu Yun sheng. Seeing the previous tasting note I was a little nervous for this one. Still not sure what to make of it but it's definitely an interesting tea.

7-19-13 (15 yrs): Low grade disintegrating leaves, funky sweet plastic smell with 1st rinse. 2nd rinse adds a powdery note. Waxy cheap unscented lipstick aroma on 3rd rinse. I'm afraid to sip this. Tastes weird.  
4-30-17 (19 yrs): Aroma is super sweet ripe stone fruit, unusually strong. 2nd rinse, still ridiculously sweet with some of that waxy lipstick scent at the base. Taste is initially sweetish with a sour edge. A little oily and slightly thick in the mouth, with waxy aftertaste. Later steepings reveal more powder in aroma. Energy descends to upper chest and then stops. 4th infusion, taste becoming less sweet, taking on a powdery note, sour is gone. Still not sure what to make of this one. Certainly unusual.

Last in today's line-up was a 2006 FengQing QiZi Gold Award sheng. A real pleasure to drink. I should note that in the years of my tasting puerh teas I've come to use word "perfumed" to denote only those teas that reach what, for me, is the pinnacle of aroma -- complex, layered and nuanced, often with floral hints here and there. Usually when I find that 'perfume' in a tea's aroma, the rest of the package is not far behind.

6-26-13 (7 yrs): Strong green pasture aroma. Long-lasting. Taste and character are elusive, subtle. Needs time to open. Little of note for now.  
4-30-17 (11 yrs): Aroma shows nice creamy meadow, with some malt mixed in. Definite perfume potential. Taste is clean and clear, nuanced. 2nd rinse aroma, also very nice, hints of what's to come with more age. Almost-floral top notes with soft leather throughout the base. Well-rounded energy, full-body, with center of qi concentrated in the deep middle of the head. Taste is layered and complex. Excellent all around. Silky mouthfeel. 

glad to have this one on the shelves