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!