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.