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.