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!



Bret said...

When it comes to aged Dan Cong I agree with you completly, they taste so similar to the un-aged, so why spend more money? Hou De had sent me samples of the Golden Pearls as well as a couple others a long time ago but if memory serves me they were very much of the Mi Lan flavor profile but very intense with an almost cooling medicinal aspect. While I liked the tea, I wouldnt buy it. I remember when they first got the Dan Congs they were really good but in the two years since the teas have lost some of their pizzazz. I also love Hou De but Idont buy from them anymore. I think when it comes to the green Taiwan Oolongs they sell the flavor profile is all too similar, no variety. As good as they are it got to be boring. Guang and Irene are indeed nice people, I remember when I ruined a 8 oz bag of Da Yu Ling they replaced it free of charge, unheard of seeing how it was entirely my fault. But at the same time there were two occasions when I had ordered some rather expensive teas and when they arrived the bags mostly contained tea crumbs, their teas are just too expensive for those kind of shinnanagans. P.S. go ahead, show us your tea ware.

Zero the Hero said...

Thanks for the comment Bret. Interesting point about the Taiwan oolongs; I don't drink very much so I'm not as adventurous as I am with other types of teas, but from what I've tried, I can see how you might get a little bored. Last year's Da Yu Ling was so great, though! I've been thirsting for some lately.

A lot of people talk about how you can store Dancong forever and it won't lose flavor. I'm not so sure, since teas I've kept around over a year have definitely tapered off and increased noticeably in astringency, which I thought was weird. Regardless of its merits, I think aging oolong is a delicate process that requires skill, otherwise you get tea that was just stored until stale. Sebastien at Jing Tea Shop once told me that you should only age quantities of 250g and up, because the tea will lose fragrance otherwise. I can see some logic in that.

I'll see if I can't whip up a teapot post sometime soon.

Tuo Cha Tea said...

I love the teapot on the top of your blog, it looks so... good. So show us some photos of your pots!

Zero the Hero said...

Thanks guys, here goes!