December 10, 2009

Some quick reviews

Today I spent the afternoon enjoying the second half of a 12g 60's Guang Yun Gong sample I purchased from Nada Cha a while back. It's been a great time; tasty tea, excellent feeling, and it's lasting for so many infusions. Is it the caffeine, flavor and qi that make me feel so at ease and happy, or is it the simple act of sitting down and focusing on a leisure activity for a couple of hours without looking at any screens or worrying about getting anything done?

After my last gabby post I had a couple people ask me which aged pu-erhs I'd recommend, so here are a couple very brief reviews of aged sheng I've recently been drinking that can be purchased as affordable samples.

The good:

80's Xia Guan Tuo from Nada Cha. This tea has become one of my standbys. It's mostly mature with little astringency, smoke or bitterness, though the character is still quite strong and bold. Not a tea for when I want to completely relax, but a drinking experience free from any serious flaws at a price that seems to match the value of the tea.

80's 8582 from Hou De. Available in 20g samples (3 pots' worth, for me). Really soft and clean tasting, with delightful sweetness and nice healthy leaves. Reminds me of the 80's dry-stored 7542 I tried from Hou De way back when samples were available and I didn't know anything about pu-erh! Price is not bad for the quality--if cakes were available, I'd probably be saving my dimes. If my younger 8582 cakes come out anything like this within the next 20 years, I'll be a happy guy.

90's Zhong Cha Yellow label from Hou De
. Another clean-tasting (seems to be the ideal Hou De M.O., for pretty much every type of tea they carry), fairly mature tea with light and sweet liquor. Didn't take detailed notes for this one but I was pretty happy with it.

The bad:

90's Zhong Cha Hun Yin from Hou De. If this isn't cooked pu-erh, then I don't know what it is, because it doesn't taste or look like any aged sheng I've ever had. Not even the wet-stored ones; I'm no expert, but this REALLY tasted like shu pu-erh to me, and not one of the better ones I've tried.

80's Zhong Cha 7542 from Hou De
. This tea tasted like it was from 1999; uninvited party guests included bitterness and astringency, although the flavor was pretty clean and it wasn't really smoky. There was some of that dusky aged flavor around the edges, but the whole experience left me wondering how a tea could be so old and taste so young. Storage too dry? Who knows, but I'm done with this one.

The completely unrelated:

2009 Fo Shou from Hou De. No, it's not pu-erh, it's high-fired Taiwanese oolong. This was one of my first post-tea-moratorium purchases of December. This tea is really high-fired; the leaves never fully open and they're a bit crunchy even at the end of a session, but somehow the roasting was just completely perfect. There's none of that acrid, burnt taste that accompanies poorly high-fired teas, and it's really tasty right now. Be forewarned, the roast dominates the flavor--it's got that inimitable Taiwanese roasty taste (if you've ever been inside a room where Taiwan oolong is being roasted, you definitely know what I'm saying), but the leaves' flavor asserts itself with a mellow sweetness and a trace of fruitiness. The body is full, no astringency, and the leaves can literally be infused 20+ times with continuing pleasant results. The tea taste/roasting taste balance is nowhere near as sophisticated as the Muzha Tieguanyin Hou De just sold out of, but the price is way better. This is a simple but very well-made tea. I liked it well enough to grab a half pound; check back with me in 2029 and we'll see how the quantity I've squirreled away tastes.

November 28, 2009

A Few Flashes From the Archives of Oblivion

This tea volcano has lain dormant a bit too long; regrettably, I've slipped back into another patch of busy times, and squawking about tea is one of the first things I have to excise in order to make more time for the more profane activities in my life. Luckily, drinking tea is one of the last things I'm ready to forgo (right up there with eating, sleeping, and listening to Roy Harper). At least, this time some of my schedule is taken up by interesting adventures--recording music and learning some Mandarin, which may or may not be in preparation for an eventual return to graduate school for the purposes of studying Chinese religion. Either way, I'm excited about applying what I learn to my tea drinking and potential travel to Asia. Since I don't have a lot of time to blog lately, this post will be a bit of a recap and a preview.

No-New-Tea November

I'll get the shock and awe out of the way early: I haven't bought any tea for the entire month of November. That's right, I'm not even joking. I don't know about you, but part of my monthly ritual is snagging at least a few new teas to make things interesting and keep up with the seasons. For me to not spend any money on tea for an entire month is a decision that could be accurately described as deranged, but I'm actually coping fairly well. What the hell was I thinking?

From a practical standpoint, I saved some good money this month--it's been nice to get ahead on my finances, take a break from some leisure expenses and add a bit more to savings. It was also a goal I decided I'd like to see myself accomplish just to test my dependence on tea. Finally, to be honest, I had one too many days where no tea sounded particularly enticing and none of the pots I drank produced exciting results. If I'm not feeling enthusiastic about some of the better teas I own, why should I be apathetically sucking down my supply and buying teas that didn't sound that great? After all, it's not exactly been the season for the best fresh teas. Instead, I've dug out a few saved bags from my storage cooler (it's weird, don't ask) and made a conscious effort to blow through the mass of pu-erh samples I've accumulated over time. The teas I've been drinking never became favorites--Jing Tea Shop's 2008 Bai Ji Guan, that weird Winter "Huang Jing" Dancong and the 90's Jing Zhu Dancong from Hou De, and a few Taiwanese oolongs I had lying around from this spring. I figure, if I'm not enthusiastic about the tea I'm drinking, I may as well drink teas I wasn't enthusiastic about in the first place. The results have actually been pretty fun. Trying my saved teas added a little more variety into the rotation and reminded me what I liked and didn't like about the teas. Some of the sessions were actually quite enjoyable, even if they didn't make me crave the tea every day. I took the opportunity to casually brew the teas with a low leaf-to-water ratio, sipping a few longer-steeped cups, which I've come to appreciate as an acceptable and even ideal way to drink less amazing teas--there's no escalated expectations or time commitment that come with gong fu, some teas actually taste better this way, and it's possible to not pay too much attention and just sit and enjoy a cup of hot tea, which is probably how we all got into this in the first place. I think I may have forgotten just a little bit about the pleasure of absentmindedly drinking a cup of tea and not scrutinizing it under the microscope. Finally, restraining myself from purchasing tea gave me pause to consider my buying habits. One thing I've gradually learned in the past five years (probably more so in the last year) or so of heavy tea drinking is patience. In the past month of observing the online vendors, there were very few teas that piqued my interest. A while ago, I probably would have still bought several teas that didn't sound completely great for the purpose of having something new to drink. These teas usually end up being the ones that clutter my shelves because I never went crazy over them. After experiencing a few years' worth of harvests, if a certain tea genre's harvest doesn't wow me, it's a little easier to not freak out and just hold on until something better comes along. Similarly, if a nice but maybe not ideal yixing pot appears, it's become a bit easier to hold off--something perfect will eventually come along.

Of course, I've still been drinking teas that excite me more, but in less proportion. Naturally, there are a few teas I'm itching to order at the beginning of December--now the trouble is managing my expectations. All in all, the month has been a success, and I've been feeding my ears with plenty of unusual music--AMM, Fred Frith's recent acoustic guitar solos album, the Stooges (somehow I've neglected them so far), and a solid Buck Owens release (just don't ask me to quit buying tea AND music for a whole month) so I've come out alive. These days I've been starting my day with something strong like Wuyi oolong or a long-brewed sheng pu-erh, then drinking somewhat lighter teas in the late morning and relaxing with some aged pu-erh in the afternoon every couple of days or so.

In Defense of Aged Pu-erh (As If It Really Needs Defending)

Which leads me to the next subject--pu-erh. I think Maitre Tea brought up the general subject a while back and I got to thinking about a few points. Firstly, MAN, there's a lot of pressure in the online tea world to drink and care about pu-erh! Reading some of these blogs, you'd think it's the only tea out there, or at least the only tea that matters. I feel for any Chinese tea lover out there who just doesn't care for it, because you're often shit-out-of-luck if you don't want to talk about pu-erh. Much as I enjoy pu-erh, I still wouldn't trade in my Wuyi oolongs, good roasted Taiwanese oolong, nice Dan Cong or fresh Chinese greens, even if it meant I got the best pu-erhs in return. It'd be boring. I guess what I'm thinking is that pu-erh often dominates the tea blogs, while in reality people are actually drinking a wider variety of teas--I wouldn't mind reading about once in a while. I suppose you can't control what you're pumped about, though, so I can't begrudge you for writing about your most powerful current obsessions.

On a similar tack, I want to say a couple words in defense of aged pu-erh. One of the most enjoyable periods in my tea life was when I started learning about sheng pu-erh and tried about 30 different samples, keeping track and deciding what I liked and disliked. I really learned a lot and came to understand at least the basics about what young sheng tastes like. Since then, my habits have changed and I rarely drink young sheng for pleasure. I've read quite a few posts or comments recently to the effect of "Aged sheng is just fancy and expensive for no reason. It's not worth the money, so I'll drink and collect young sheng instead." As someone who drinks mid-aged pu-erh on a regular basis, I can't help but get riled by this. Though it's tempting to respond with a brief "Sour grapes" reply, I don't think that would substantively address a few more of the things going on here. First off, you and I wouldn't even know about pu-erh at all if it weren't for the aged teas. It took the last 20 years for their popularity to build in Taiwan and Southeast Asia to the point where the tea was even known over here. To write off aged pu-erh when (for all intents and purposes) it is created by its producers for the purposes of aging seems to be a pretty bad case of looking a gift horse in the mouth.

For me, aged sheng just provides a more enjoyable drinking experience. No bitterness, no acrid smokiness, no cottonmouth astringency, and such delightful body and brewing durability. A leisurely pot of pu-erh on an afternoon after a long day of work is perfect--the qi is calming just as much as the caffeine is gently stimulating, and the whole experience is more relaxation-oriented. Although I do appreciate exploring the flavors and potential in the leaves, young sheng just doesn't provide as elegant or enjoyable an experience for me; the caffeine usually makes me jittery, sometimes my throat feels unpleasantly rough, and there's a lot more effort involved in getting the brew right so you don't produce an undrinkable cup.

Sure, aged pu-erh is more expensive, but not all of it is prohibitively expensive. Compare the price-per-gram of your favorite high-end Yan Cha, Dan Cong, High Mt. Taiwanese oolong, or Tieguanyin to that of a $200 357g bing of aged pu-erh, for example, and you'll find they're not too far off (many times the oolongs are more expensive!)--you just have to buy more when you buy a whole bing. Of course, it doesn't help that a lot of pu-erh is dirt cheap when it's brand new (a $14 bing is about $.04/gram), but for me the effort and expense put into properly aging a tea is worth the change in the tea's characteristics and the experience I get from drinking it.

Additionally, I'm not so sure the "I'll just buy young pu-erh and age it myself" argument is airtight. I've tried at least five Asian-stored pu-erhs from the 80's that tasted like they needed further aging to get rid of their astringency and smoke. If those teas spent almost 30 years in ideal storage conditions without fully maturing, can you be sure your inexperienced, experimental US storage is going to do the trick? I'm not that confident! Are you willing to wait 30 years before you enjoy some aged pu-erh? Even if you're in your 20's, 30 years is a long time to wait just for the satisfaction of saving some money. How many more years can you keep buying fresh pu-erh and expect to drink it when it's aged? I'd rather spend some extra money on some aged tea that I know tastes good now (rather than buy more cheap young sheng) so I can drink it while I wait and see how a modest amount of young sheng matures--if it even does at all.

I don't mean to harsh your mellow if you're a fan (even an exclusive fan) of young sheng pu-erh--I think it's pretty awesome that some Westerners have developed a taste for a tea that is traditionally consumed after aging--more power to you if you enjoy the green stuff! I'm not here to say that you should only drink aged pu-erh and you're a fool if you think you enjoy young pu-erh. I just happen to have discovered through experience that I enjoy young sheng just occasionally and get a lot more out of drinking the more aged stuff, despite its "outrageous" price tag. I just want to urge you not to write off aged pu-erh simply because it's more expensive--especially if you haven't taken the time to understand what it's like. It's pretty easy to get a large sampling of inexpensive young sheng, but it's a bit more difficult to do the same with aged pu-erh. Luckily, Hou De, Nada Cha and occasionally Jing Tea Shop offer some affordable samples (Hou De has some good ones somewhat recently posted in their "Tea Sampler" section). Try some aged pu-erh before you declare that it's for the birds; you might change your mind. If you try pu-erhs between 10 and 30 years old, you might also enjoy learning a bit about what happens to pu-erh as it ages. At the very least, your opinion will have experience to back it up and you'll be able to better articulate why it is you think aged pu-erh isn't worth it. Lastly, if you're thinking (even in the back of your mind) that you're buying your tea for the purposes of aging and your ultimate goal is to drink aged pu-erh, I urge you to be realistic--if all you're buying is tongs of fresh pu-erh, you might be in for a long wait; you might be better off dividing your spending between young pu-erh and something you can drink while you wait. Of course, there ARE plenty of people out there who enjoy both aged and unaged sheng pu-erh...Anyway, sorry I got mad. Let's never fight again.

I'm now realizing that I should have divided this into multiple posts, this is getting ridiculous. I probably won't have a whole lot of blog time coming up though, so I'll try and keep it brief in the home stretch.

The Dregs (No, Not the Fannings)

I recently started going to an artesian well in Lynnwood, WA for tea-making water. It's not much of a secret--easy to find and there's plenty of information online about it, so if you live in the Seattle area and are interested in the closest thing to spring water for your tea, I'd recommend it. I mainly started doing this to see if my tetsubin would start re-building its mineral patina. So far, it seems like it's working. I've been snapping a photo after every 5-gallon water container I go through, and things are starting to get a lot whiter inside the tetsubin. I'll post a photo progression eventually when the difference is really appreciable. It's been a fun process to monitor the thing change.

Last, I finally acquired a reasonably-priced cha chuan, or tea boat. Not a wooden tea tray, or a simple bowl or plate, or a bowl with a cover with holes, but a bowl with a teapot stand. For me, it's a preferred accessory for gong fu; it's not bulky, can be emptied easily, and the pot doesn't have to be dripping with water every time you pick it up. Other than a few shitty (leaky) "yixing zisha" options and a couple overly-expensive examples, my months-long internet scouring came up empty. Luckily, I've got a potter friend and she was able to make a really nice artisan tea boat for me that didn't break the bank, and it works great. I'm working on convincing her to make more and offer them for sale online--I figure there have got to be a few more people like me out there who could get a lot of use out of one. I'll post some pictures of what she made for me and hopefully sometime soon I can convince her to make some more!

Well, I'll retreat into my clearly insane tea cave--I've got a few upcoming adventures that may be blogworthy, time permitting, like a recap of 50g of 1970's Guang Yun Gong pu-erh I purchased a few months back, and a yet-to-be-named exciting international purchase that may just make a bigger fool out of me. I hope your tea is tasting good.

October 2, 2009


Here I am, sipping pu-erh, listening to L'Apprendista by Stormy Six. Italian beat-turned-avant-garde rockers, soon to be a member of the Rock In Opposition movement alongside the leg-endary Henry Cow. Lots of contrapuntal saxophone, acoustic guitar, vibes, and rounded Italian vocals--kind of like Gentle Giant, but a bit less twiddly. It's a nice complement to the little pu-erh head cloud I'm floating in at the moment.

Why all the jabbering about obscure music that nobody cares about? Lately I keep thinking more and more that, for me, tea drinking is a personal experience to the point of being incommunicable--and I think that's just what I like about it. Just like throwing an album on and letting it bounce around inside your head, drinking tea is ultimately ineffable experience. I could (and sometimes do, for communication's sake) sit here and grasp at fruits, flowers, and plants that a tea tasted like, but it'd only be a doomed attempt to describe feelings and sensations that exist only in short moments, and uniquely at that.

Take this aged Wuyi Yen Cha from Wisteria Tea House in Taipei, another kind gift from a fellow tea drinker. These blistered, careworn leaves begot a dark brown liquor with just a hint of redness--neither quite like a young Wuyi tea nor quite like an aged Taiwan oolong, but reminiscent of both. The mouthfeel was so much smoother and rounder than most Yen Cha I've been drinking lately, and the flavor so much mellower and more pungent. I could call it fruity, since that's the word most people use to describe the peculiar taste of aged oolong, but truthfully from me it would be a misrepresentation. To me, the tea tastes like aged Wuyi oolong, and it's hard to get more specific than that! If I wanted to taste fruit, I'd eat fruit--this is tea, and it tastes great (thanks again for the sample)! Isn't that what keeps us all coming back for more? These teas offer flavors and sensations that can't be found anywhere else? It calls to mind a rapturous mystical ode to the Way found in my favorite chapter of Zhuangzi:
Joy, anger, grief, delight, worry, regret, fickleness, inflexibility, modesty, willfulness, candor, insolence—music from empty holes, mushrooms springing up in dampness, day and night replacing each other before us, and no one knows where they sprout from. Let it be! Let it be! [It is enough that] morning and evening we have them, and they are the means by which we live. (32-33, Watson transl.)
The confluence of sensation in a good pot of tea is truly ineffable, and the best cups leave me completely unwilling to attempt to cage the experience with words or do anything but sit dumbfounded and hope the next steeping is just as strong. Let it be! And yet here we all are, writing and reading about tea...every good mystic yearns to share the feeling, I guess. Here's to that unrepeatable cup of tea.

September 28, 2009

Some aged Taiwanese oolong

I've been drinking a lot of pu-erh lately, in the afternoons. For the past couple of years I've avoided drinking tea after about 3 pm, but recently I've been enjoying a pot as late as 6. With pu-erh, it's not so bad--for me, a cup of old pu-erh is more calming than caffeinating, though I'm sure I'd have some trouble getting to sleep within a couple hours of drinking some. Anyway, my selection of old pu-erh is limited and I've been returning to the same teas (some of them expensive) a bit too often. Luckily, I've lately had a couple of other teas that produce a similar experience. One of them has been a small sample of aged Taiwanese oolong that I recently received as a gift. Now, there have been plenty of times in the past that I've ragged on aged oolongs--I've tried over 10 examples (excluding Wuyi Yen Cha that have sat around for a few years) and maybe 2 have been teas that I would ever buy (or drink) again. Not that all of the aged oolongs I've had were shitty teas (well, a couple were), but most of them didn't differ enough from their un-aged counterparts to justify the 30% or more price difference.

Some of the last summer tomatoes; the cute little green bowl was made by a friend--more of her work to come!

This tea makes me second-guess my attitudes toward aged oolong. Labeled as 50's/60's, it's easily one of the oldest (if not the oldest) teas I've ever tasted, provided the age is accurate. Who really cares, though--it's about drinking experience and flavor, right? Despite my giddy anticipation, this tea was a winner in both respects. Every once in a great while I'll stumble on one of those cunning seductress teas--at first, the flavor just isn't there. "Looks like the storage took its toll on this one," I'll brashly quip, hoisting my trousers up with both thumbs for effect. After a few sips, though, it starts building, and after a handful of infusions the complexity can only be described as delightful--the tea tastes different, depending on the size of the sip, the temperature, the amount of air taken through the mouth and/or nose before and after swallowing, and the gan dances on with every breath. The flavor alternates between darkly floral and woody fruit, with only a hint of the humidity present in the 70's oolong from NadaCha and none of the whatever-it-is that makes the 90's baozhong from Hou De sort of unbearable after a couple cups. I'm not much on super-accurate flavor description (sorry, but most of the time identification of specific flowers, fruits or other plants would be specious coming out of my mouth, not to mention pretentious), but to me this tea is definitely of the same genre as those other two. That is, aged baozhong. I wish they still produced more baozhong this way--to me it's a lot more interesting than those green, green flowers-in-a-cup teas that seem to be winning all the competitions lately. I'm sure some of the deliciousness comes from the aging, too.

As far as the rest of the drinking experience is concerned, it's cake. One thing I do like about well-aged oolongs is that they're usually easy to brew, and you can usually keep coaxing flavor out of them with long steeps. The mouthfeel is great and slippery, especially for a roasted tea. Finally, the qi of this tea is great--mellowing, with a relaxing sort of cloudy buzzing feeling around the head and eyes--usually I only find this sort of qi in pu-erhs. I'm no expert on qi, nor am I especially sensitive to it, but if a tea gives me a pleasant feeling other than a straight-up caffeine buzz, I'm always appreciative. The cashed leaves are in pretty great shape, considering the tea is potentially twice as old as I am. It is so fascinating to me to hold and experience only lightly processed organic matter from such a long time ago, and the chance to compare the look, feel, and flavor of the leaves to recent teas is engrossing as well. This tea was a distinct privilege to try.

As for aged oolongs as a genre, I remain respectfully aloof. I've tasted proof that, done properly, aged oolong can present a drinking experience unique from both unaged oolong and aged pu-erh, but I've tasted much more proof that few people seem to know how to do it properly. If the amount of practically usable information (in English) about aging pu-erh is frustratingly incomplete, anecdotal, and old-wives'-tale-y, then the secrets of successful oolong aging are downright arcane. I won't be exhaustively picking over my available tea sources for aged teas, but I'll probably continue nosing about for teas I'd be willing to drink regularly, if all the elements line up correctly. Personally, I don't have any big plans to age any Taiwanese oolongs (I've got 4oz of Dong Ding jarred away), though I'm probably going to experiment with aging some Wuyi teas, just for fun. I've been enjoying reading everyone's posts about the Yunnan Sourcing tasting event--though it's a bit like reading reviews of a movie you didn't see, it's always fun to hear multiple opinions about the same teas, and hear how differently some people regarded each tea.

September 10, 2009

Teaware for Sale

I've purchased quite a bit of teaware since becoming a tea enthusiast, and unfortunately I'll sometimes come to the realization that I don't use certain pieces enough to justify keeping them--I don't need a cupboard full of unused pots and cups, especially when there are a lot of people out there looking to improve their tea equipment. So, I'll be conducting a sort of ongoing garage sale of sorts through this blog. Here's some general information and policy, then I'll list what's for sale.  Note: the zhuni pot in this blog's header is not--and has never been--for sale, which is why it isn't listed in this post.
  • If you'd like to make an offer that's different from the posted price, I'll be happy to discuss it via email (just use the link in my profile).
  • Payment will be through PayPal (please email me first) and buyer will pay for shipping (for US buyers, for one item, it'll be approximately $10.).  If you choose not to insure the package, the shipment is considered at your own risk, meaning any loss or damage is your responsibility, not mine or the carrier's.  This includes choosing not to insure and declare the pot's full value for international shipments.
  • Since it's helpful to try teaware out before completely committing, I'm happy to accept returns on teaware within 2 weeks of receipt. Buyer pays for return shipping (insurance recommended!)
  • If you'd like more pictures or more information, please email and I'll supply you with as much as I can!
  • All of the pieces originally came from vendors (listed for each piece for any further research you'd like to do) with excellent reputations for product quality and authenticity. I'm not an expert on these matters, so I'll have to take the original vendor's word for some things.

~2010 Duan Ni Bamboo Xiao Pin (115ml): $175 

Up for sale is this eccentric and lovely yellow duan ni xiao pin I wrote about some time ago.  Originally acquired as a special order from Jing Tea Shop, where Sebastien informed me that it came from the studio of a good friend who is a Yixing national craft master (they even printed stamps of the series).  The bamboo theme is classic, though the angle the body sits at is more modern.  The pot pours quite well and the clay is a very yellow duan ni fired to a nice clinky pitch.  Over the past three years I've used the pot infrequently for liu bao, cooked pu-erh and occasionally for aged raw pu-erh, but since I rarely acquire or drink the first two tea types and this quirky pot has been sitting on the shelf, it's time to offer it to a new home.  The clay is typically porous for duan ni, and I think the pot would also be well-suited to roasted or aged oolong, since the relatively high firing makes it retain heat very well.  The pour is swift and has a beautiful arc, thanks to the spout shape and angle of the body.

~1970's Hong Ni Shui Pin (not available


2000's Modern Zhu Ni Shi Piao (130ml): SOLD

Late 90's Pin Zi Ni Dao Ba Xishi (100ml): SOLD

2000's Lu Ni Bian Hu (95ml): SOLD

2000's Pin Zi Ni San Zhu Shuang Ke Shi Piao (110ml): SOLD

Early ROC Zhu Ni Shui Ping Pin (100ml): SOLD

1980's Aged Pin Zi Ni Ying Hua (108ml): $180 SOLD

Pin Zi Ni Xi Shi (110ml): $40 SOLD

1990's Pin Zi Ni Si Fang Gu (95 ml): SOLD

1990's Aged Qing Shui Ni "Long Dan" (~75 ml): SOLD

2007 Ben Shan Lu Ni Shui Ping (95ml): SOLD

90's Hei Ni Shi Piao (140ml):  SOLD

90's Pin Zi Ni "Xi Shi" (80ml): SOLD

1970's Hong Ni "Li Xing" (105ml): SOLD

2000's Duan Ni "Ping Gai Bian Gu" (90ml): SOLD

Early ROC-Period Chin Shui Ni "Lian Zi" (
120ml): (SOLD)

Cultural Revolution-Period Zini Shui Ping (135ml): (SOLD)

1960's or Earlier Sanded Pear-shape Zhuni (175ml): SOLD

1980's Hong Ni Shi Piao (250cc): (SOLD)

September 6, 2009

Test tubin'

Probably my most exciting tea purchase this summer was an old tetsubin (Japanese cast iron kettle) purchased with the help of the boys at Life of Tea. Funny thing is, nobody I know seems to know the word and everyone I've told about the kettle looks blankly back at me and says "Test tubing?" I haven't really made any efforts to discover the age of the tetsubin, but from what I've heard about tetsubins it's almost guaranteed to be older than the 1950's, with a potential age of well into the 1800's. After looking inside the kettle, the mineral buildup and rusting would seem to indicate that it's at least been around the block for a few pots of tea!

This kettle's not actually very big--around half a liter, I'd guess, but it's large enough for me to pour several infusions into my average yixing and still have enough water left to mix with a fresh supply. This way I don't bring one pot of water to boil too many times, and boiling the fresh water takes place while I'm drinking tea!

The great part about Life of Tea is that, within reason, you can say "I'm looking for a tetsubin. It doesn't matter what it looks like, who made it, or how big it is, I just want the water to taste good," and sooner or later you'll be presented with a range of pictured options with prices and short descriptions. Naturally, their selection isn't unlimited, but they generally do plenty of legwork to earn their commission. The only drawbacks I can think of is that the item descriptions can be fairly terse (which might leave pickier teaware junkies with more questions like--what's the exact capacity? how good is the lid fit and pour?) and that the website's general price ranges may need to be updated.

Back to the kettle, it's so far made a remarkable difference in the taste of my water. Immediately upon first use, I could taste the difference in the plain heated water--more mineral taste, perhaps even a blatant iron flavor, but it doesn't interfere with the tea flavor at all. That is, if I use it with the right teas. So far I've gotten the best results with pu-erh and oolongs with at least moderate roasting. A couple light dancong oolongs and a light roast Dong-Ding I tried with the tetsubin water seemed muffled, like the water dampened the bouquet a bit too much. With pu-erh and yen cha, though, the water bolsters the flavor and mouthfeel with a pleasant broadness. Luckily, I've still got a stainless kettle and a clay kettle that both work fine with lighter teas. The tetsubin's benefits come at the moderate cost of maintenance and the need for a hotplate or charcoal stove--obviously I don't have a charcoal stove, so I had to purchase a hotplate especially for this kettle. Maintenance consists of making sure the kettle dries after each use, or else it'll rust!

This last point is the primary inspiration for this posting. The above photo was taken a couple of weeks after I received and began using my tetsubin. You can see some slight rusting and also notice that a large proportion of the area is lighter-colored with whitish mineral buildup. I took this photo when I first started thinking that maybe the mineral deposits were starting to diminish. I'm glad I took the photo--now it's just about a month later, and there is barely any white left inside the kettle (see below)--it's now mostly on the upper insides, which don't get as much water exposure. Life of Tea's blurb explains that mineral deposits come from using the kettle with spring water and that continued use of spring water promotes mineral "growth." I didn't really realize that the buildup would go away so quickly--especially because I've been using the kettle for much the past month with actual spring water I've collected myself.* Perhaps the tetsubin's former owner's spring water contained different minerals--fortunately, the flavor of water the tetsubin imparts hasn't really been affected at all, though the change in appearance has been rapid. I've heard a few times something to the effect of "If you want your tetsubin to keep making good tasting water, you have to use mountain spring water!" It makes me pretty happy to report that Brita filtered tap water tastes pretty darn good out of the tetsubin as well--when somebody tells you that some aspect of tea preparation can only be done one way, it's almost never true!

To that end, my tea obsession led me to covet and purchase an old tetsubin and for me, it's been a worthwhile purchase and has made a noticeable difference to my tea. I do stop far short, though, of declaring that your tea's not really good unless the water comes from an antique tetsubin; the difference is only to a degree, and it's also a matter of personal taste. To be honest, though, the tetsubin has made more of a difference to my teas' flavor than have any of my yixing teapots, and I've owned and used a lot of different yixing pots. Sounds like there's more to my tea obsession than pure flavor--more of an all-around tea hedonism, perhaps.

*Sadly, the full "spring water" story won't get its due this year. In short, I went on a nice family vacation this summer to a place in high desert central Oregon with an incredible-tasting and very accessible spring. Needless to say, I spent the whole week imbibing delicious teas with delicious water in leisurely opulence before returning home with as much spring water as I could carry. I had originally planned a post with pictures of the spring, the tetsubin and the surrounding mountains, but I got too caught up with living the moments that I did a poor job of recording them!

September 4, 2009

1980's Xiaguan 8653 Traditional Characters

I'm back here for comparatively regular posting, with this aged Xiaguan pu-erh from NadaCha. Nada fulfills what seems to be a sadly unique niche in the online western tea vendor community--he sells aged pu-erh (along with authentic antique teaware and personally-sourced and produced pu-erh and other teas) at reasonable prices. If only there were more like-minded vendors, we'd probably all know a lot more about aged pu-erh.

Today is the fifth time I've had a chance to experience this tea, and I'm thankful I've had so many experiences with it, because they've all been great learning opportunities. At the original time of this tea's listing on the NadaCha website, it was far and away the most expensive tea offered at a whopping £355. Since then, it's been soundly trumped by a couple of £750 early 80's Menghai cakes, but that's another story. The point is, this cake presents a chance to try an aged classic blend from a popular factory. The price also gives us a glimpse of what the aged pu-erh market is looking like these days--to me, $600 for one cake of pu-erh skirts the upper limit of what I could ever imagine being a reasonable purchase, and $1300 is just too much. I'm more than happy, though, to part with a smaller amount of cash to understand just what it is about these aged brand name teas that has facilitated such a pricey market.

Extremely tightly-compressed leaves (check out the cloth print in the picture) have clearly aged to a darker brown, and the large portion of buds has turned mostly orange. After a quick rinse and a generous first steep, the ironbound chunk of leaves gives off a pleasant and complex aroma--honeyed wood, to be boring and general, and to be more specific, sharp mustard and a basement in Richland, WA that I haven't visited in well over 15 years. Smell, of all the senses, wins hands-down for having the strongest ties with memory. After comparing a number of young, mid-aged, and aged pu-erhs with each other, I'll tremblingly submit that the "mustard" aroma I've mentioned in several notes just may be the combination of a tea's diminishing smokiness and its increasing aged flavor. Taste of the liquor mimics the aroma's complexity, though I confess I'm not experienced enough with Xiaguan teas to identify the "unmistakable Xiaguan taste."

It takes a good four infusions before the chunks start to loosen up, which I admit annoys me. By the fifth (pictured), the inner leaves have opened up, but the outer leaves are several infusions ahead. I'm also suspicious that the ridiculous compression accounts for my least favorite aspects of the drinking experience: For my most recent sample, after just a couple of infusions, this tea is dry, dry, dry. I'm also suspicious that this is because the leaves on the inside of the cake haven't aged as much because they've received much less exposure to air and humidity, thanks to their compression. Therefore it seems reasonable that the product description describes a tea free from astringency--a sample from the thinner, looser edge of the cake probably isn't astringent at all. The other aspect I'm not as pumped about is the rather prominent smoky flavor that is surprisingly still present in the leaves. It took me a few sessions to put my finger on it, especially because I had already convinced myself that no tea this old could possibly still taste smoky, but it's there.

It might well be that I really have convinced myself--for me, a tea this old and this expensive really should taste more mature. With aged pu-erh, it's not as easily possible as it is with brand new pu-erh to buy cakes and cakes, willy-nilly--if I'm going to pay for a whole cake of old pu-erh, which is never a cost to scoff at (even if it's a good value), I want it to taste old, even if it's flawed. This cake is complex with a great hui gan in the aftertaste, and its considerable aging progress is undeniable, but it also tastes like it still needs more aging before it's really a pleasure to drink as an old cake. For this price, a "project" cake isn't worth it to me, even if it's a good one. Mostly, this is because I'm still unsure as to the quality of climate where I live in terms of pu-erh aging effectiveness. Since this cake appears to have aged slowly even in Taiwan, there's a small possibility it could never become truly "aged" in the traditional way in my climate. Hypothetical bummer. If I collected tea in Taiwan, this tea's price might make more sense to me--I could hold on to it for a few more years and have a fantastic cake. But part of me still wants to say, "Come on, how long should it really take for a pu-erh to reach reasonable maturity?" Xiaguan knows 100% more than I do about actually creating pu-erh tea, but to me this level of compression seems unhelpful. Who knows, though, it could be the cake's past storage as well. Safe to say it's time for me to bow my head and quit pretending like I know anything about the "why" of pu-erh production and aging. All I've got a handle on is my senses, and they've decided that, as an old pu-erh drinking experience, this cake is not as good of a value as a number of other teas offered on the site, like the blended bricks, the Xiaguan tuocha, and the loose Wang Zi pu-erhs. Alternately, if you're looking for a "project" tea that's going to need a few more years, the Grand Yellow Label cake, the 8582, and the early 2000's cakes generally offer lower prices.

Anyone else try this tea? I'd be interested in reading someone else's opinion, especially since it took me so many sessions to really form mine. Thanks to Nada, as always, for offering these teas--even if you don't fall in love with a tea, it's always a valuable experience to try them.

July 28, 2009

Tea A/C

You know you're a tea lover when it's 90º in your upstairs apartment and you're still drinking tea! Seattle is about as hot as it ever gets right now, and it's amazing what 20º more will do to keeping your tea hot for much longer. I often find myself tapping my fingers waiting for it to cool down enough to be drinkable, but this little trick helps a lot. Setting the cup next to an open window allows the incoming breeze to cool off the tea much more quickly. It's still blowing hot air, but it's better than sitting inside my pressure-cooked house. The alternative is sitting outside, which I'll have to try soon. It's just a matter of extension cords for the hotplate. If not for the caffeine, I'd be chugging tea at 9 pm, when it's actually very nice and comfy outside.

I've been very lax about posting for a while; lots to do, and I've also been earning some extra dough for a couple of tea-related purchases. More on those soon, hopefully. I hope everybody's enjoying tasty spring teas despite the heat.

May 17, 2009

Si Ting Zhuni Yixing (Hey tea guy!)

As I was going for a run earlier today and crossed the main street of the neighborhood's "downtown" area, some guy inside a shop yelled out the open door "Hey tea guy!" I flashed him the "rock on" sign and kept running. It doesn't get much better than that.

The results are in, and the people want yixing (thankfully, since the longjing hasn't arrived yet). Since Tuo Cha Tea mentioned the titular pot for this blog, I'll start there. Fill your teapot up with tea/come and take a ride with me!

This pot has got to be my #1 favorite, if I had to pick one, aesthetically as well as functionally. I acquired it from Hou De last August, started using it for Yen Cha and other roasted oolongs ever since. Here are some quick stats--Age: "60's or early." Clay: Zhuni. Capacity: 85 ml. I'm not planning to talk about prices with these pot profiles; I don't think it's really necessary, as you can compare prices of other pots on the websites where the pot came from; plus it's about finding the perfect pot, not how much the perfect pot costs. I have no idea how to guess or verify the age of a pot, but since this APPEARS to be genuine zhuni, it would have to be several decades old. I've also got no way of verifying the clay type either, but compared to modern zhuni pots I've had, the surface texture is definitely naturally glossier, more complex-looking, and there's evidence of shrinkage both on the surface of the clay and around the hand working lines (visible in many of these pics). In the end, whether or not it's some sort of "true" zhuni isn't really that important to me; the piece satisfies me on so many levels that it's a joy to be able to use it every day. Comparing the below pic to the others you can see how different the clay looks in different types of light; this seems accentuated with zhuni pots, but it's definitely true of most yixing I've seen (thankfully the day I took all of these pics provided good light and my camera actually held up its end of the bargain).

Why do I like this pot so much? Let me count the ways... The size is perfect for solo drinking; the entire pot fits into the celadon tea cup I usually use, and the small size means I can pack it with Yen Cha without using too much leaf or getting too buzzed. Despite the single hole, the pot rarely ever seems to clog, which is more than I can say for many pots I've had. The clay is extremely dense, retaining heat for a ridiculous amount of time and giving a very high-pitch ring if tapped. The pour is perfectly dripless, really fast and creates a graceful arc. The handle is tiny but fits my hand very well. The above picture shows that the shui pin line appears pretty solid and also that the inside of the pot is becoming well-seasoned from all the dark oolong it's been fed. Most of my non-zhuni pots are more recent additions, so I'm interested to see how the seasoning process works on more porous pots, but so far that visibly stained part of the lid has seasoned the fastest. I'm not sure why, but that's the part that always seems to build up the fastest. You can't really see in any of the other pictures, but the inside of the lid is starting to get a nice patina, and on the pictures where the inside of the pot is visible you can see the inside of the pot is beginning to darken as well. If you click on the large picture you can see that the inner burnishing has an interesting "combed" looking texture.

Another reason that this pot functions extremely well is because the hole in the knob is pretty large. With many pots that I have with smaller holes, the hole tends to become blocked with steam water. This, of course, prevents the hole from allowing the tea water to displace the air up inside the lid's dome when the lid is placed on the full pot, so if you put the lid on when the hole is blocked, it shoves a lid-sized amount of tea out of the pot. This pot almost never does that, so I don't have to spend much time blowing the water out of the hole. You can also see in the above pic that some patina is developing on the crook of the spout. Anywhere that tea water can come to rest on a pot seems to build patina faster.

A couple more things before I put this one to bed. Interestingly, there isn't a bottom seal on this pot, just the one right below the handle. A Taiwanese friend expressed surprise that I use this pot for Yen Cha (instead of...High Mt. Oolong, I guess). I'm a little suspicious of any claims that zhuni only works with certain teas. Before I bought a few more pots, I used to use this one for a lot of different teas (Dancong, aged and un-aged sheng pu-erh), and it always performed well, giving a clear representation of the tea without any foreign flavors. The shape might be a little confining for pellet oolong, and now that it's more seasoned the roasting element might not be great for green oolong, but I think the clay type has potential to be used with any tea type. I also compared the same tea in this pot and a few other pots (including a Duan ni pot, which is supposed to be ideal for roasted tea) and I actually liked it better out of this pot. You can laugh at me all you want; I'll be enjoying some delicious Yen Cha. Don't let anyone convince you of something without confirming it with your own senses! This pot has been so good to me; at the time I hadn't owned many high-quality or collectible yixing pots, so I didn't know how great of a find it was, aesthetically and functionally. Since, I've had plenty of pots educate me on the possible deficiencies in yixing potmaking to the point where I'd probably pay much more for this pot if I had to buy it again; it's that worth it. I recently did a very bad thing (after taking these pics; no leaves on the trees in these) and dropped the lid. The bottom rim suffered an extremely minute chip. It bothered me more than I wanted it to and I cursed myself for damaging such a vibrant piece of irreplaceable functional art for over a week, but I eventually got over it. I hope to be able to use this pot in good condition for years to come, so I'd better be more careful.
Post-script! I've heard a lot of bloggers badmouth "internet pots" and claim that "you just can't get a good pot on the internet," and I just have to vehemently disagree. I've bought pots in person and online, and the online pots have been much much better. Thing is, you have to have a trustworthy vendor. Of course, the 4000Friends $7 eBay pots are going to be terrible, but you could guess that easily. There are a few really great vendors online who sell authentic and high-quality pots and do a great job representing them. Yes, Guang and Irene at Hou De do sometimes have to charge a bit to make margin on their pots, but they really know their stuff and if they say a pot has a perfect pour with no drips, they're not lying. Of all the vendors I've bought pots from, Hou De offers the most consistently brilliant pots, sacrificing very little in the way of ideal characteristics. That's one reason I wanted to write about some of my yixing; to identify which vendors are great sources and why. I also want to share my experiences and especially my mistakes so hopefully others can avoid them or have a better idea of what to look for when buying a pot online or in person. If anyone out there has pictures or blog posts about their yixing, please do share! I always love seeing other pots, especially well-loved ones.

May 14, 2009

Aged Jing Zhu Dancong from Hou De

Please forgive my absence from regular posting! I've got a number of projects going on and don't always have tons of time to share my tea experiences and grumblings. Strangely, it seems like the rest of the tea blog world is in a similar state lately. The only problem is, whenever I gear up to post something, I always end up rambling more than I expect and it takes over an hour. Hopefully my extremely modestly-sized readership will forgive me! Here are some "concise" notes regarding an aged Dancong from Hou De Asian Art.

Hou De is one of my very favorite online vendors for a few reasons. Guang and Irene are about the nicest couple of customer-servers you can hope to come across (although, now that I think of it, the online tea vendor community is full of really attentive and friendly customer service). They'll always have a special place in my heart for introducing me to the true variety and potential quality of sheng pu-erh that is out there, and also to high quality yixing tea pots. They are a mom-and-pop operation, so you can expect to pay a little more (especially with yixing and aged pu-erh), but they've also got good taste and an understanding of multiple tea genres. That means they're not only a good go-to for Taiwanese oolongs, but also for pu-erh and yen cha. On the whole, I haven't been blown away by their Dancong oolongs, especially compared with those sold by Jing Tea Shop, but every once in a while I'll try something if it looks interesting.

Interesting is the first word that comes to mind for this 90's "Jing Zhu" (translated by Hou De as "Golden Pearl") oolong. It's aged well over 10 years, and processed with help from Anxi oolong producers--pellet-rolled in Anxi style, rather than stripe-rolled like tradtional Dancong. Supposedly the Feng Huang producers thought help from Anxi's tea masters might help them reach a similar level of success. Clearly the idea didn't pan out--when was the last time you saw a Dancong like this? Likewise, Feng Huang remains the darkhorse of Chinese oolongs; lesser-known, and underappreciated for the often bland quality that makes it outside of China. I held off buying this tea for quite a while, since I wasn't as impressed with the other Dancongs on Hou De, but with such a great story and good description, I eventually took the plunge.

A couple things to note before talking about flavor: The pearls are actually quite small. Hou De's picture makes it easy to think that they might be the size of Tieguanyin leaves, but in fact they're more like regular Milan Dancong leaves rolled into pellets. Secondly, the pellets have a really attractive sheen, which I don't think came through as well on the Hou De pictures. I'm glad I took the leaves outside to photograph, because I hadn't noticed during earlier sessions.

I brewed this tea like I usually do with aged oolongs, and similarly to how I brew yen cha: about a quarter of the pot full (more than if it were a new rolled oolong), a 15-20 second first infusion, dropping down to flash infusions for the next several gos. I find that if you don't use enough leaves for aged oolong, the flavor is thin and wears out very quickly, but a few extra leaves fix the problem easily. This Dancong is one fruity mother. The wet leaves smell just like raisins to me, and the cha hai's aroma reflects this in a somewhat more muted way. The flavor is really similar, but with a slightly woody edge. There's an active bitterness that comes up front when I sip, then disappears with a wave of fruity flavor, remaining only as a tart note. Not bad, but the tea doesn't develop a whole lot across the brews, and the astringency gets pretty heavy, man. It's also worth noting that the leaves spring open much more readily than good traditional Dancong--because of the rolling, aging, or both? I don't know, go ask Mr. Owl.

I didn't have a chance to try them side by side, but this tea reminds me a whole lot of my memories of the other 90's Aged Dancong sold by Hou De, which is more traditional-looking. Fruity, strong, astringent, and not very dynamic. It took me at least 6 months to get through 2 oz of that tea, so I can't see myself pounding through this one too fast without reminding myself to drink it. Thing is, both of these teas remind me of unaged traditional (Milan-ish) Dancong too much to justify spending $24.50 for 2 oz, when I can just get 100g of Jing Tea Shop's Milan for $32 and have a comparable if not superior experience. What's really going on is this: I have yet to taste an aged oolong that made me say "Wow, oolong should really be aged!" Off the top of my head I've tried 2 Dancong, a Baozhong, a couple Taiwanese Tieguanyins, a few Dong-Dings, and a couple Yen Cha, and none of them tasted significantly different enough from their un-aged counterparts to justify storing them for over 10 years or especially for paying considerably more for them. The only exception I can think of is setting aside Yen Cha for a year or two to let the roasting quality diminish, but this seems different from long-term aging bent on some sort of transformation. I think the rising popularity of pu-erh has played a large part in the promotion of aged oolong--"If aged pu-erh is good, aged oolong must be good too!"--but so far I'm not convinced. I'm always open to having my mind changed/blown by a fantastic aged oolong, but each one I try that underwhelms me is unfortunately another reason to buy them only occasionally.

I'll be back, maybe not too soon, but I've got a few potential things coming up: 5 different snazzy Dragonwell samples (holy shit!), a few oolongs and pu-erhs, and a bunch of pictures I took of some yixing. I've been meaning to post profiles of some of my teapots in order to muse about clay types, pot shapes, functionality aspects, and the experience of buying teapots online (plus I love seeing other people's teapots in their blogs). If any of these ideas sound interesting, drop a comment and I'll try to cook something up faster than otherwise. I hope you're enjoying some fresh 2009 tea; it's that time!


April 20, 2009

Spring Chinese Greens

I'm not sure why, but Chinese green tea seems to get very short shrift in the burgeoning online tea blogging community. I suppose it could be because it's not quite as connoisseur-oriented as pu-erh or oolong, but I feel like it's a bit unjustly neglected.

A Chinese green tea called Bi Luo Chun was the first tea that truly amazed me, after drinking tons of tea bags and a whole lot of loose Moroccan Mint, Gunpowder and Strawberry Sencha (yeah, I know). After discovering the potential quality of Chinese greens, I went wild and pursued them to the fullest extent I could, moving from one online retailer to another until coming to understand which ones were really offering top-quality tea and which were selling two-years-ago's leftovers. My interest peaked in 2007 in a rather interesting way, right after I had just discovered Teaspring, the first really great green tea source I had found. My plan was to stock up on green tea in May, right when it was all fresh, and not have to buy any for the rest of the year! What I didn't predict was that my interests might shift and I might not be interested in, say, 300g of different Long Jings by the time several months had passed. By mid-winter I was getting much more interested in oolongs and pu-erhs, and drinking my massive supply of Chinese greens was becoming a duty rather than a pleasure. Spring 2008 was an improvement, but I still bought too much--you can really only drink so much tea in a day, and most of the time I find myself drinking oolong or pu-erh if I'm only going to have one tea session.

So, this spring I'm implementing a new plan that will help me enjoy Chinese greens without over-stocking and feeling obligated to drink them. The most I'm getting is 25g of each tea, I drink green tea about once a day, often in a small 90ml gaiwan, and I drink one type of tea until it's gone. This way I don't have too much tea to get through, and I can enjoy the tea when it's freshest--even if it stays sealed, Chinese green tea seems to have that fresh, springy edge that only lasts for a couple months and disappears later. By making Chinese green tea a seasonal delicacy (as maybe it should be due to its nature), I'll be able to look forward to it every spring while drinking other teas that last the year round a bit better.

So far, so good! I started last week with this Zhu Ye Qing, or Green Bamboo Shoot, from Teaspring. Though I've outgrown some tea vendors after learning a bit more about tea, Teaspring is still one of my solid go-to vendors, especially for green tea. When it comes to oolong and pu-erh, they're a little so-so, though you can sometimes get a good deal on a decent tea. Not all of their green tea is amazing, but prices are reasonable, they've got a couple of simply awesome teas that nobody else has, and they offer plenty of info, clearly marked harvest dates, and they ship fairly quickly and very cheaply directly from China. Usually I hyperlink to the product page, but I can't seem to find Zhu Ye Qing on their page--they might be out of stock, hmm. This tea was really tasty--it definitely fit on the vegetal, legume side of the green tea spectrum (as opposed to nutty like Liu An Gua Pian or rich like Dong Ting Bi Luo Chun). Vibrant green spears plump up to fat pointy buds as they absorb water, and the liquor yields an edgy, sweet, and snap pea-like flavor that peaks around 2 or 3 infusions, then remains pleasant if more astringent for several more. Green tea may not evolve as much as oolong or pu-erh, but I'll be damned if it isn't really fun to drink. Lately I've managed to hit the sweet spot between not enough flavor and just a tad overbrewed--a wee bitterness that disappears after swallowing brings out a really pointed flavor that I like the best. Since I'm used to brewing Yen Cha and other oolongs, it's hard not to use too many leaves, though. It's tough to tell from the photo, but the infused leaves are an even brighter green than the dry ones--one of the delights of really fresh green tea.

This week's tea was Meng Ding Gan Lu. This was (I think) the first tea harvested in 2008, and one of the first this year. This one resembles Bi Luo Chun more, with twisted, downy buds, which are incredibly tiny--even when they unfurl. The flavor is still very fresh and vegetal, with a darker, nuttier aspect, but not quite as vibrant or interesting as the Zhu Ye Qing from last week. Luckily I only have a bit left and it's on to a couple of my real favorites. Hopefully I'll have enough time to blog about them soon!

April 7, 2009

2008 Jing Gu Factory Run Ling 8545 Pu-erh

Finally! Spring has arrived and the clouds have retreated for a few days. This means I've got a chance to take a few photos of the lovely spring blossoms, and it also makes for better tea photos!

To punctuate the crisp and vibrant change in season, a generous sample of 2008 sheng from Seven Cups. I've been eying their sheng pu-erh selection for a while--there are some interesting-looking cakes from some factories I've never heard of, which is intriguing. It's tough to get hopes up too high, though, considering the recent pu-erh boom and proliferation of mediocre pu-erh producers that have sprung up. According to the Seven Cups blog, though, Jing Gu Factory used to represent a standard of quality, and has recently been reopened. Let's see if the claim "the tea is great and the prices are really reasonable" holds up.

The cake is 2008's Jing Gu Run Ling 8545. Don't know what "Run Ling" means, but it sounds like this is a recipe that dates to 1985, so long as Jing Gu is adhering to the standard blend recipe notation. The leaves look really promising--some nice large, complete leaves are visible, and there are plenty of buds. No smokiness whatsoever comes off the dry (or wet) leaves, which is fine by me. I'm not opposed to smokiness in a young pu-erh, but would probably prefer that it wasn't there--it can take 10 years or more of Chinese or Taiwanese storage before the smoke disappears, and I can't imagine USA storage is going to beat that, plus it's more pleasant to drink a young pu-erh that doesn't taste like smoke.

Luckily, I had enough leaves to brew this pu-erh twice. The first session was intriguing but ultimately disappointing--a first steep revealed a dewy, light green and slightly bitter liquor with medium mouthfeel and some fresh-tasting sweetness. In a lot of ways, it at first reminded me of Xi-Zhi Hao's 2007 Autumn Nu Er Cha in its light, airy sweetness, if not nearly as complex. A couple more steeps brought on some more hay-like elements into the mix, but soon I felt like the tea was running out of gas. Adding more time only thinned out the liquor and brought on mouth-coating astringency. Though it's really nice to see that more factories are taking care with their processing and taking the smoke out of the equation, I expect a little more oomph out of a young sheng pu-erh if it's going to hold my interest. Today I brewed the tea again--this time, as Hobbes would say, I "showed it a strong hand," loading the pot with more leaves and giving slightly longer infusion times early on (10+ seconds, rather than roughly flash infusions). This definitely improved the experience--flavors were more vibrant, giving off a really dripping sweet freshness and a bitterness that easily sweetens without much of a wait. Unfurled leaves confirm that some care went into blending and processing this mao cha. For me, this is a tea of high notes that doesn't really pack the lower punch that makes a really balanced pu-erh, but I could see myself drinking it again. After the second session, it changed from a tea I was glad to have tried but wasn't interested in purchasing to one I may pick up a cake of to see how it progresses in a couple years.

Compared to the 2007 Xi-Zhi Hao 8582 I was drinking earlier today, it seems quite polite and reserved, and less complex as well. I don't yet have any firm knowledge about which tea makes a better candidate for aging--I like to think that perhaps both styles have their own merits, though these "drinkable now" pu-erhs seem to be a pretty recent development. Time will tell, of course. At$26.70 per cake, it's a much better price point than the aforementioned Nu Er Cha, so it might be worthwhile for the purposes of experimentation to see what happens to it.