November 19, 2010

Vendor Adventures

I just recently branched out to a couple of new vendors with some success. Tea life is still pretty unexciting for me--I'm mostly on the lookout for a handful of reasonably-priced teas to consume often as staples. Most notably, heavily-roasted yan cha and charcoal-roasted Dong-Ding.

The main adventure was with Camellia Sinensis. A tea friend had shared with me a couple of their aged oolongs and I thought they were pretty good for the price. So, we went in together for an order and explored a few other aged oolongs, some yan cha and a couple of fresh Taiwan oolongs. It seems we picked up the last of their stock of 1987 Muzha Tieguanyin; it's quite tasty and I'll likely be trying the 1994 option the next time I return. The 1982 Wu He is also quite interesting, with a much earthier beety flavor. The 1995 Dong-Ding doesn't really taste very aged, but the roast is heavy and satisfying for when I want one of those teas that's roasted to the limit of acceptability (but in a good way). We also tried the un-aged "cooked" Dong-Ding and Muzha Tieguanyin. The former really isn't roasted much at all, which is not the kind of Dong-Ding I'm looking for, but the Tieguanyin is nice--almost as good as the 2009 one offered on Hou De, which is more than I can say for the 2010 Hou De TGY. I think it was a successful experiment, but I was thwarted in finding good yan cha (Shui Xian was average and the Tie Luo Han has a downright funky note) and didn't really succeed in finding a good Dong-Ding with the roast level I was hoping for.

The second vendor was Dragon Tea House. I only ordered two teas--a 1999 Dong-Ding which appeared to be well-roasted, and a 2010 Shui Xian which also looked to be high-fire. The Dong-Ding was kind of a bust--not much of a charcoal flavor (probably because it's 11 years old, right?) and sort of a weird hybrid character. The wet leaves reveal some suspicious results, looking like a blend of two different processing styles, so I'm not quite sure what to make of the tea overall, though the flavor shows evidence of aging. The "Nonpareil" Shui Xian, on the other hand was a resounding success--exactly what I've been looking for for quite a while. It's heavily roasted but has a nice solid tea base, and I'm hoping to save up the cash for a large order. I've got a hunch that this is the type of yan cha that produces the round, thick aged yan cha that I've had the pleasure to experience just a few times. Either way, it's a nice drinker now for the days I'm not in the mood for more contemporarily-processed yan cha. I have to give kudos to Dragon Tea House for providing so many and such helpful photos for their oolongs--I was able to identify the characteristics I was looking for (blistery leaves, dark wet leaf color and dark liquor color) with relative confidence and the tea that arrived didn't disappoint me. I'm intrigued to check out more of their yan cha--I don't think I've ever seen a vendor with so many obscure cultivars available, and some of them look to be traditionally processed, too!

I just posted two yixing pots on the Teaware for Sale section, for anyone interested. Happy tea drinking to all!

September 30, 2010

Nerd Stuff

A scientist friend of mine gifted me this righteous graduated cylinder. With it I'm now able to precisely measure the volumes of my teaware.

For instance, this little "70ml" qing shui ni pot? Well, it's actually 80ml. I'm not sure what sellers use to measure their teaware before estimating the volume, but I find it generally varies 10-20ml from the professed volume, which can sometimes be a bit of a pain--like the time I bought a "65ml" pot that was actually 50ml, a noticeably less practical size.

Of course, this sort of preciseness has little bearing on the intuitive tea brewing of a gong fu mystic (which is what we're all trying to be, right?), but the nerd in me really would find knowing the exact volume of his teapots very interesting. You didn't see, but I just pushed my imaginary nerd glasses back up the bridge of my nose. Really, though, on the occasions when I round up four or five pots to compare how they brew the same tea, it's pretty helpful to know exact volumes so I can either attempt to fill the pots differently or use a different proportion of leaf when setting the parameters of the comparison. Other than that, this cylinder is a nifty but impractical addition to my ironic quasi-high school science class tea setup!

In other news, for those who are looking, I added a nice tea boat to the blog's "Teaware for Sale" section.

I'm on the verge of branching out to a couple of new tea vendors--Dragon Tea House on eBay and Camellia Sinensis of Canada. My tea budget isn't anywhere near its high water mark (which means I'm unfortunately unable to splurge on things like aged pu-erh at the moment) but I'm running out of my staples--good, old-fashioned Yan Cha and roasted Taiwan oolong. Time to venture out!

September 16, 2010


Ah, to kick back with a relaxing cup of tea. I've been way too busy lately with planning and executing my CD release. Now the event is over and it's a perfect opportunity to pause reflect over a few cups of tea. Today I'm drinking 1996 Menghai 8582.

This is an interesting tea in my collection; I own a few cakes but it's not really to the point where I really enjoy every session. Compared with some of its mid/late 90's contemporaries it's not the most mature tea--the mouthfeel is fairly rough and the longevity isn't particularly impressive. Occasionally, though, it'll show flashes of the light, silky sweetness that I've tasted in much older versions of the same recipe. It's certainly aging, but it needs to mellow out quite a bit. This is the kind of mid-aged pu-erh that I'll check in on every several months and by the end of the session I usually decide that I should wait longer before trying it again. Still, it's been months since I last drank it and I haven't really drank much aged pu-erh lately.

Whilst in Portland picking up my finished CDs I also managed to make a couple of purchases. The first is the nicest acoustic guitar I've yet owned--a Larrivée D-03R--and the second is the antique Japanese porcelain cup pictured right, which I found at Shogun's Gallery on NW 23rd. I've been disrespectfully sullying the cup with Chinese tea for the better part of the last week! I've been on the lookout for a decent blue and white old porcelain cup for a while and this one fits the bill--its pale blue swooping bird is pretty cool and I enjoy the irregularity of the foot, which means that the cup is permanently cocked at a slight angle. Shogun's Gallery was fun--they have quite a selection of tetsubin in the $200-$350 range. Although I was informed that most of their customers buy them as decorations, there were a few with visible mineral patinas that I would be excited to take a chance and brew some water in. I was quietly appalled to see an old tetsubin on the proprietors' desk repurposed as a pen-and-scissor holder. Gasp! Hopefully there was a good reason. I rarely get to go to nice teaware stores, so my "don't buy something" threshold is quite low. Luckily I got off pretty easy with the teacup. The new guitar means I won't exactly be splurging on any tongs of pu-erh or old pots any time soon, but a guitar that begs to be played is worth several times its weight in gold.

Seattle's summer came and went over the course of about 3 weeks. It's now drizzling's warm enough to open the windows, though, so at least my pu-erh cakes are going to enjoy the weather.

September 3, 2010

Tea Masters

Let me preface these reviews by pleading Stéphane to forgive me for taking an inexcusable amount of time to write up my tasting notes for these teas that he kindly donated for review! I've mentioned how busy I've been these past three months, but it's really not much of a justification. I've been in hermit mode--working hard, trying to save money, not drinking much tea, and I've even retrogressed musically, mostly listening to a playlist of albums I haven't listened to in over a year--what started at 4500 songs is now threatening to drop below 1000. Maybe I should try that with my pu-erh stash! So, my relaxation time has been devoted to "pure" relaxation activities rather than constructive ones like rhapsodizing about the sensory delights of tea. Time to make amends a bit.

If you've found your way to my seedy, unkempt corner of the tea blogosphere, then you're already well familiar with Stéphane's blog, Tea Masters, and the varied, high-quality and multilingual content he's been posting for years. Stéphane actually contacted me after a music- and Tea Masters-related post and offered some samples. We had a nice exchange of emails that resulted in some oolongs and pu-erh winging their way to me--Stéphane wanted to know what I thought of his pu-erh because I write about it so often. Also, and more unusually, he sent me 6g of his 1990 Hong Shui oolong (at the time retailing for $18/6g) on orders that I should "pay what I think it's worth." Tasting these teas was fun.

The festivities started with two unaged hong shui oolongs. Direct comparison seems simultaneously appropriate (since they're both hong shui) and inappropriate (since they're from different years, seasons and growing regions), but here goes. Of the two, the fall 2009 tea was darker in character--more of a roasted aroma, more fruity notes, and more of a cereal character--but somehow a greener liquor. The spring 2010 tea, on the other hand, did seem to have more of a gaoshan character, with a more lingering aftertaste, fuller mouthfeel, and somehow a redder liquor. The leaves weren't in the best shape but were clearly hand-harvested. I've had a number of hong shui oolongs in the past year--probably over 10, come to think of it. They seem pretty popular right now, at least in the Western tea market. Although there have only been a few that I'd consider buying quantities of, I like what the tea represents--higher oxidation, a bit of roasting, and an emphasis on more than just aroma. I've also noticed a wide variation in how much oxidation and roasting are employed to make a hong shui--these fall into the majority category (medium oxidation and light roasting), but I've seen a few that are more like black (red) teas.

Next was a 2010 spring Alishan soft stem oolong. One of my online tea buddies was subtly ribbing me for not drinking much gaoshan oolong--we all have our tastes, I guess, and mine usually favor something with at least medium roasting. If a gaoshan oolong is good, though, I always leave the session wishing I felt like drinking gaoshan more often. High mountain oolongs are one of those tea types where, for me, it's less about comparing minute differences between mountains and harvests and more about whether the tea "has it," that is, if it displays the level of characteristics it should for being the type of tea it is--I'd rather drink no gaoshan oolong than mediocre gaoshan. This Alishan fit the bill; refined, subtle, floral and just a touch fruity. The leaves were soft without any harsh texture, and the infusions rode the edge of bitterness on the first couple infusions, gently tapering into fruity squash sweetness. Satisfying.

The younger pu-erh (whose URL I can't seem to find) is Stéphane's fave, a 2006 Lincang. I fear I may have given an inaccurate impression of my drinking habits--though I do love pu-erh, I know very little about the different growing regions, factories, recipes etc. Although pu-erh's one of my top tea types, it's still another tea where I try to find a tea that "has it." For pu-erh, usually "it" is a certain amount of agedness, since drinking aged pu-erh provides an experience I haven't found in any other tea type. I do dabble in younger pu-erh from time to time, though, and this Lincang was a reminder of how such dabblance (new word I made up, what do you think?) can be pretty rewarding. This tea tastes a bit more aged than the other 2006 teas I've been recently drinking, with a character that tends more toward the hearty rather than the high and sweet. I'm not really in the market for 2006 pu-erh, so it's hard to say whether I'd buy this or not if I were. Like a lot of semi-aged pu-erh it's beginning an awkward adolescence but has enough going for it that it's still enjoyable to drink.

The second pu-erh is a loose 1970's sheng. This tea definitely fall in the "has it" category--I think my sample was 2.5g, and it was sufficient for over 10 steepings in a 100ml pot. Gentle, vibrant and well-aged. I don't have too much else to say about this one, other than that it fits the bill of what I look for in aged pu-erh; just a nice relaxing drinking experience with enough complex flavor to keep things interesting--leaves were pretty complete with some twigs. For the price, you could probably get a better deal, but this was a good pu-erh.

Finally, we have the 1990 aged hong shui. This was the tea I'd been anticipating the most, both because of the price and because I'd read a number of Stéphane's posts about it. I'm gradually being convinced that aged oolong is a viable tea genre, and this tea was another item of evidence contributing to that conclusion. Dark leaves, loosely rolled. A bit of hot water sets free a grainy aroma and commences an entirely enjoyable session. This tea lasted a valiant number of steepings, considering it's getting rather long in the tooth, and the initial 5-8 were full of robust complexity that gradually became simpler as the infusion times lengthened. I eventually steeped this tea for 10+ minutes at a time and was interested to try it next to an aged Fo Shou oolong that was at a similar place steeping-wise. Though they were both steeped-out, the hong shui had a much more medicinal character than the fo shou, which was still very floral/fruity. It would be interesting (if impossible) to see how one of the other hong shui oolongs from this group tastes in 20 years compared to how this one tastes now. It's hard to imagine they'd be very similar, but who knows? As far as deciding how much this tea is worth, I think $18 would be a reasonable price if I sat down in a nice tea house and ordered it off the menu; the quality of this tea is as good as the better aged oolongs I've tried, and simply having the experience of tasting a tea like this is worth the price now and again. I would definitely not be trying to stock my tea cabinet at this price (or even rushing to order another 6g), but for a one-off experience (like going to the movies or a concert) an $18 treat is permissible. Luckily, Stéphane's reputation is well-supported so spending the money on one of his more expensive teas isn't much of a risk.

To wrap up, I'll mention the brewing suggestions Stéphane made. One of my favorite things about Tea Masters is that it's as much about the details of brewing tea as it is about the teas themselves. Stéphane recommended using a gaiwan and told me the samples would be small in order to illustrate that it's possible to get more out of less tea. I couldn't agree more. When it comes to yan cha or charcoal roasted Taiwan oolong, I'll generally load the pot sot it's completely packed when wet. When it comes to gaoshan oolong and young pu-erh, though, I'll use much less--usually a scant covering of the bottom of the pot, or slightly more than the bottom of a gaiwan. I don't really enjoy much bitterness or aggressiveness in highly floral oolong, so 3-4g/100ml usually does the trick. When the samples arrived, I was excited to see that Stéphane's leaf allocation was pretty close to what I would choose, though I might pile on a pinch more leaf for the more oxidized oolongs. As for the gaiwan/yixing dilemma, I think it's a style thing--I'm happy to use a gaiwan for testing teas but I'll probably always be thinking in the back of my mind how the tea could be seasoning one of my pots. Good tea tastes good no matter what. Thanks Stéphane!

August 12, 2010

Up for Air (Dong-Ding & More Teaware for Sale)

Wow, another two-month hiatus! The time has sure passed quickly. Music is again responsible for my retreat from the tea blogosphere; finishing recording, mixing, mastering and designing the album has taken nearly all of my spare time (and a large number of my sleep hours). It's been a good kind of busy, though. Very fulfilling and engaging on a level that few other things can match. I've still been drinking tea, of course, though I've been buying less of it in order to fund the upcoming CD release. I've also been keeping up on my favorite tea blogs, though after a few years of doing this it seems like summer is generally a slower period for tea blogging and tea vendor releases. A bit surprising, I guess, considering the summer is when almost all of the fresh tea is finally available! Maybe everyone is just too busy drinking to write.

Today I'll consider my most recent yixing purchase as well as one of the most recent tea purchases I made (all the way back in June!). The pot comes from Jing Tea Shop (who still has at least one identical pot still in stock). Good quality duan ni clay; ~100ml capacity. The lid opening is the largest out of any pot I've ever owned, which makes getting leaves in and out extremely easy. I don't recall seeing a lot of duan ni teapots around on blogs; though a fair number of vendors sell them, they aren't often lauded by consumers. Well I'm here today to do just that. I think people are often a bit worried by this clay's porosity. Yes, it is quite porous--usually not high-fired and with plenty of potential to draw something out of your tea. It's probably that characteristic that worries some people: "Well it'll just suck the flavor out of my tea." Yeah, maybe if you're using it with green gaoshan oolong or young sheng pu-erh. After a fair bit of experimentation, I've found this pot makes certain teas taste better than any other pot I own--teas where something NEEDS to be drawn out. For example, heavily charcoal roasted teas like Wuyi Yan Cha, Taiwanese oolongs like Muzha Tieguanyin, Dong-Ding, etc., or aged sheng and cooked pu-erh. In addition to merely rounding out the actual flavor of the tea, I find more porous clays can smooth and thicken the mouthfeel to an astounding degree.

However, pots like this do take some seasoning before performing at their best (probably another reason why people are a bit tentative about trying this type of clay). When I first started using it, this pot only brewed one tea ideally--a very heavily charcoal-baked Dong Ding that I'm saving for a couple of years. After some patient seasoning, though, this pot produces mouth-wateringly smooth, full-feeling sessions from most Dong-Dings and now expertly handles teas with higher floral notes like Muzha Tieguanyin and traditional roasted Anxi Tieguanyin. I won't lie--I had to sacrifice a couple of teas to the seasoning of this pot--in particular a decently machine-roasted competition Dong-Ding from Hou De, which was just a bit too green to overcome the porosity. All in the name of an awesome pot, though.

Needless to say, I've been drinking a whole lot of Dong-Ding lately. The aforementioned heavily charcoal-baked Dong-Ding and a less heavily charcoal roasted Dong-Ding both came from Floating Leaves Tea. Although I've been tea friends with Shiuwen for a couple of years, I haven't bought much tea from her because I consume very little of gaoshan oolongs like Baozhong, Lishan, etc., and those are her speciality. This spring, though, she bought some really tasty aged teas and small quantities of a few Dong-Dings. I apologize for being part of the reason that these teas never made it to her website! I'm hoping Shiuwen continues to expand into the arena of charcoal-roasted teas, because with her seasoned palate she picked some really good ones that exhibit both skilled roasting and solid tea bases. The lesser-roasted of the two gave me constant companionship through my final recording sessions--a week of 10-12 hour working days--so it's got a special place in my heart, not to mention some really solid seasoning for its pot. Those two teas and the success I had with my new duan ni pot inspired me to crack open a charcoal roasted Dong-Ding purchased from Hou De about a year and a half ago; unsurprisingly that one's now nearly gone!

Well, I owe a couple posts--one on a handful of tea samples that Stephane at Teamasters was kind enough to send me quite a while back, and another on the brand new Essence of Tea sheng pu-erh cakes that recently completed their long voyage from China to England and thence to Seattle. Until then, those interested can have a look at my TEAWARE FOR SALE page; it's time to thin out the tea shelf again and there are 3 very nice yixing pots available (one rather old) and 2 Xu De Jia cups (originally from Hou De). Best wishes, and I hope everyone is enjoying their respective summers. Weather in Seattle has been, to be blunt, piss-poor. Luckily, though, cool weather is better for tea drinking!

June 6, 2010

1985 Loose Menghai 8582 & The Mandarin's Tea Room

This afternoon I had a nice session with this 80's Menghai 8582 pu-erh from The Mandarin's Tea Room. Tim has been blogging for several years, but only recently started selling tea. I'm far from the first to write about his teas, and I'm sure plenty of you out there have already been attracted by his shop's alluring-looking teas and hyperbolic prices. Like you, I've been interested since the site went up but only recently did I take the plunge and order 5g each of this tea and the 80's brick, as well as some of the 2009 high-fired Anxi Tieguanyin.

My time with this tea was very pleasant. The loose leaves show the spectrum of aged pu-erh colors, from dark brown to more of a rusty red for the buds and yellowed leaves, and there are enough white specks to indicate some period of humid storage. My 5g sample was quite loose--not really any chunks to speak of, which makes me wonder when this tea was last in cake form, and why it was broken up (assuming it's been broken up since before Tim bought it). Brewing loose pu-erhs takes a bit more attention; since the leaves are all already separate, the flavor and essence of the leaves comes out a bit quicker and I have to adjust my tried-and-true brewing parameters a bit and be swift pouring off the rinse.

The aroma is rich, perfect for these final damp spring days, and each brew fills the cup with thick darkness topped with swirling mist. I've tried enough Menghai pu-erhs of this vintage that experiencing this tea isn't a revelation, but more of a very happy comfort. As with most aged pu-erh, the mouth feel is a main attraction--smooth as the day is long, though there's a tiny trace of astringency that some more aging could probably take care of. Likewise, the flavor is well-developed and mature, but as the steeping times first start increasing there's a vanishing hint of bitterness. When a tea's character is so full, though, it's hard to fault it for exhibiting the last vestiges of its youth--if I owned a cake of this tea, I doubt I'd be telling myself "Wait 5-10 more years, then it'll be fully mature." If anything, a fleeting whisper of youth only adds complexity to an aged tea--more important to my palate is that the aged characteristics outweigh the youthful ones, and there's no contest here. I'd also note that this tea's flavor seems to exhibit more high notes, maybe more acidity than other aged 8582's I've tried, which is a welcome addition to its complexity--clearly I'm not even close to having this recipe mastered! Although there are better values out there for sampling, I'd confidently add this tea to the short list of "good" aged pu-erh options if you're unfamiliar with the genre and want to gain a better understanding of the baffling relationship between young and old pu-erh.

I also have to mention the packaging (pictured above), which seems to be designed more with NYC residents in mind rather than seasoned tea drinkers. Yes, my 5g of 8582 really did come in a glass vial with a cork stopper. The ornate tag describes the tea. The glass vial came in a white box (along with my other 5g sample, in its own vial, of course) sealed with a sticker that reads "Pure Premium of the Choicest China Teas...Superior Quality Leaves." The white box was in turn wrapped in tissue paper, which was sealed with another special sticker, and a separate embossed card details brewing instructions for the tea. I acknowledge and want to be respectful of the effort that's gone into selecting and providing these quality teas, but to me this kind of packaging is over the top and arguably wasteful. I appreciate the impact of an attractive and classy look when it comes to branding, but so much extra material and frill seems designed to either attract people who don't know enough about tea to be attracted by the teas' virtues themselves, or to make the rather "NYC" prices seem to be more "worth it." The second option is a little ironic, considering the fact that the expense of the custom stickers, cards and multiple individual wrappings is only driving the prices up more. If there were a "No fancy wrappings, please, just tea in bags adequate for storage" option on the site's checkout, I'd gladly select it, but instead I'm feeling guilty about instigating the waste. However, I give Tim credit for so completely conceptualizing the look of his product and not compromising on presentation--it's just not my style!

Unfortunately I don't have enough time these days to individually review all of the teas from this purchase, I will say that the 2009 high-fired Tieguanyin is my top pick. The tea's sumptuously complex, easily the best of the few fired Anxi Tieguanyins I've tried, and I've been surprised at how vibrant the high notes and acidity are. I'd venture to say that the tea's flavor profile is the closest thing to Taiwan's Muzha Tieguanyin I've tasted from the mainland, and that Tim's tea is close to being as good as the great Muzha TGY currently offered on Hou De, though neither are inexpensive. As always, all quibbles aside, I'm thankful for the opportunity to try such good teas.

May 27, 2010

2006 Ban Tian Yao

This 2006 Wuyi oolong comes from Hou De. Ban Tian Yao can be had from a number of different vendors, but this is probably the best one I've tried. It's the last remaining Hou De yan cha available from a series offered (I think) in 2006, before they started only offering yearly Da Hong Pao/Rou Gui/Shui Xian. The roast is right in the middle range and it tastes like a 3-4 year old yan cha--the punchy high notes have mellowed and the initial mouthfeel has become a lot softer. Around this age, it seems like medium/light roast yan cha become quite a bit more subtle. I haven't had many light roast teas of this age, but I imagine their greenness wouldn't hold up too well--the 2 year-old light roasts I've had mostly seemed dulled, not refined, which leads me to my next point.

As I've mentioned ad nauseum, I'm on a perennial hunt for well-roasted yan cha that reach a peak after a few years of aging. I bought this tea for a second time hoping it would be a bit more like some of the other teas in its series--the Tie Luo Han, Bai Ji Guan and Shui Jin Gui (the stocks of which I think I personally finished off for all three) were probably my three favorite yan cha ever (in that order), and over the past year I polished them each off with a happy mouth and a heavy heart. So far, I've found few teas to replace them, and this Ban Tian Yao doesn't quite fit the bill either--today I loaded the shit out of my pot, which sometimes increases the flavor concentration, but with this tea it mostly just increased the caffeine experience. It's a pretty good tea, though, and demonstrably better than most of the yan cha I've been drinking daily this year--it just doesn't have the roasting level/quality I'm hoping for. I get the feeling that this is what a lot of the "heavier" roasted teas currently available from Jing Tea Shop, Seven Cups and perhaps even Hou De will taste like in 3-4 years: a bit of mellowed improvement, but not worth storing for much longer after that for danger of diminished potency. No way to be sure without storing some, though, which I'm doing to a limited extent. All I know for sure is that the charcoal taste in my favorites has been strong enough that they were probably undrinkable during their first couple of years, which doesn't describe any of the teas I've tasted this year. Ah well, there are still plenty of tasty and drinkable yan cha available out there even if I don't get my way. Probably more than many other tea genres, though, there are some pretty shitty examples.

This pin zi ni pot has developed a pretty healthy sheen since the end of January, thanks to an almost daily diet of yan cha. I'm not very meticulous about brushing the pot with tea liquor or polishing it with a cloth. I'll pour the dregs of a cha hai on it occasionally, but if the tea's good it's more likely to end up in my mouth, so most of the external patina on my pots ends up a) where drips repeatedly happen, and b) where what little I pour on the pot is likely to sit without running off. Pots look so much better after they've been used for a while--even if the burnishing isn't great, a bit of tea residue brings out so many more visual dimensions.

May 24, 2010

Gong Fu Tea - Like a Cloud Hanging in the Sky?

I've been thinking a lot recently about gong fu tea as an art form--there are so many different ways you can go with it beyond the simple goal of making tea well. Lately the aesthetics I've been attempting to focus on are minimalism and utility. Too often my tea mat is piled up with three different cups I'm not using, a couple of tea pots, innumerable tea crumbs, and the rest of the table is littered with bills, place mats and whatever else got dumped there in the past week. Ideally, though, the gong fu equipment is designed to bring the focus on the tea and the moment of the tea session, so all of these other things are superfluous at best, or total distractions at worst. Making an effort to clear off the table and pare things down to the bare essentials has been a good way for me to really focus on the tea I'm drinking and the time I'm taking out of my day to sit quietly--no trips to the computer, no music, no reading, no writing. Every piece of equipment has a role that isn't duplicated by any other piece, and hopefully it all comes together to shed more light on the tea that's being drank--perfect for special teas like yesterday's 80's pu-erh, but I sometimes wonder what I'd discover about my daily teas if I paid this much attention to every session.

I've spent a lot of free time in the last few months roaming the trails of Discovery Park wrapped in an aural blanket woven by free improvisation pioneers AMM. Although some may disagree, I don't think it has to be too difficult to enjoy "modern" (classical) music. Without getting into things too deeply or technically, I'll offer that it's a pretty simple process--it's a matter of loosing yourself from the bonds of your preconceptions and unlearning the patterns and criteria your brain has been trained to seek out in music, instead letting the arrangement of sound just be what it is, appreciating it on its own terms. Only after digging into a handful of AMM albums did I become aware of an ironic confluence of ideas--a number of their "song" titles are drawn from directly from the Zhuangzi, which is probably my favorite piece of writing in any format. The irony is that I unknowingly first started cultivating an appreciation for the type of left-field music that AMM creates by analyzing it from a perspective that I gleaned from reading the Zhuangzi. I spend so much time thinking that we each inhabit our own discrete, subjective spheres of thought and mind experience that a clear connection like this can catch me totally unawares. With such low expectations, it's exhilarating to encounter some fellow travelers who seem to understand the same ideas in such a similar way.

Anyway, the tea connection comes down to this: these principles aren't exclusive to music or Daoist texts (or even Daoist thought, since they're echoed in a number of Buddhist texts and the mystical traditions of many other world religious traditions)--the beauty is that they can be applied to illuminate any number of sensory (or intellectual) experiences with the blinding light of a less dependent perspective. When I'm really trying to pare my gong fu down to the bare, elegant essentials, it's an effort to allow the tea to be experienced as solely as possible: not as a product tied to some website with a typed description, a wrapper and a bunch of disparate tea blog descriptions, but as a thing (tea), which comes along with a bundle of sense experiences made possible by a complex, disciplined skill (gong fu, the arrangement of the parameters necessary for a successful tea session). If I can reach that level of attention once a month with a good tea, I'll be a happy man.

May 23, 2010

Early 80's Da Ye

This tea (pictured R, below a thorny intruder!) can be had from Essence of Tea (formerly NadaCha) for a mere £750/350g bing. Even with the GBP taking a beating like it's taking right now, this tea's price is daunting. Luckily, it's also available by the gram, and for an achievable investment a pot's worth can be yours. I'm not here to ramble or moan about the price of teas--I feel that this goes on way too much on too many tea blogs for my tastes. When a certain level of quality is assured, price is far from the forefront of my mind as a factor of interest. Instead, knowing from plenty of experience that the quality of Essence of Tea's offerings has satisfied me many times (with only a few exceptions), this tea's price indicates that it's what Asian collectors (probably Taiwanese) view as "the good stuff" from its time period--this tea is a learning experience waiting to happen.

For me, the chance to ponder so many questions when tasting a tea like this is partly what makes it worth the price of admission: How does a $1000 aged cake taste? How should a pu-erh taste after almost 30 years of aging? More specifically, what does a Menghai 8582 recipe (this is supposedly an earlier prototype of that now famous recipe) taste after decades of aging? What kinds of characteristics in aged teas are sought out by collectors? When you're trying some of your first aged tea, the answers to these questions become the entire universe of your experience, but the more teas you try, the broader your knowledge becomes and the more you can start asking other questions: How is this different from other aged teas I've tried? How mature does it taste compared with contemporary productions? How much less mature does an 80's tea taste from a 70's tea? Is it more worth purchasing a tea of this price and maturity or a less expensive, less mature tea in hopes that it will reach a state similar to this tea? The list goes on and on. I have a very small amount of experience with teas like this, but I can imagine that even those with a host of experience with contemporary pu-erhs and beyond still have plenty of questions to probe with every tea they try.

5g in the pot and a quick rinse. With teas of which I own whole cakes, I may use 6 or more grams for a session, depending on how the tea is apt to behave. I'm a little worried that my decision to buy only 5g may result in a weak pot, but the ensuing session quickly disabuses me of that notion. Most of my experience with 8582 recipes older than 10 years has given me the impression of light, thinner sweetness--less of the directness and high notes that you'd find in an aged 7542, and maybe even a little less of a distinct character. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing--I'd be happy to have some of these aged 8582 cakes in my collection, but I can't say they'd be my favorites. This one is rather different, though, with a thicker mouthfeel, darker cup color and something of a bolder flavor. I probably shouldn't compare it too directly to other 8582's, since it's a prototype and it's made from wild trees instead of plantation bushes.

The tea's broad, sweet and cooling, but there's also a hint of something edgy--I can't tell if it's some vestiges of youth or just a facet of the tea's flavor. This is the point where I wish I had three or four pots' worth of this tea so I could decide whether or not that specific flavor is something I enjoy or dislike. Around the tenth infusion I'll be damned if I didn't taste--for a fleeting second--some sort of tropical fruitiness, something I'd never expect from a pu-erh. The surprisingly dark color of the liquor persists through probably about 15 infusions, at which time the flavor turns to that generic stewed-aged-pu-erh taste. Sweet, smooth and drinkable, but with very little of a distinct character left. I know a lot of people like to continue steeping the tea over and over at this point, but I prefer just 2 or 3 long steeps, maybe 20 minutes at the most, and call it a day--overnight steeped pu-erh just doesn't taste great the next day when it's at room temperature. Overall, this tea was quite enjoyable to drink. I've just written a lot here about studying and learning from aged pu-erhs, but ultimately I'm in it for the enjoyment and mellow buzz of drinking a good aged pu-erh. I'm not always ready to spend $20 on one pot of tea, but with the offerings from Essence of Tea I'm confident it'll be worth it. I always recommend that enthusiasts of young sheng pu-erh try at least a few old ones if they think they're collecting with the intention of fully aging tea--how can you decide a tea is good for aging if you don't know what good aged tea tastes like? I probably wouldn't start with a tea as expensive as this one, though. Something like the 1993 7542 will set you back about $5 for a pot, which seems to be a reasonable price for the pleasure and learning that can be had with a tea like that.

The leaves certainly live up to the cake's moniker and reputation as 8582 predecessor--they are big. A bit of prodding reveals that some of the used leaves are much softer, suppler and lighter brown than others, which is interesting. There's a lot of zealotry happening online these days about so-called questionable processing practices in today's pu-erhs--namely over-oxidation and "improper" kill-green--but teas like this seem to me to be a gentle reminder that a) pu-erh processing is a much larger and more complex subject than some of us would like to believe, and b) a lot of aged teas that are valued by Asian collectors and are also tasting pretty delicious exhibit evidence of some of the processing characteristics that are being decried as foul play. In situations like this, agnosticism seems to be the most prudent position, rather than setting yourself up for some serious foot-in-mouth action. To be fair, though, it's a lot easier to say a certain processing technique is "ok" when you're holding a delicious, obviously successfully-aged cake in your hands. What to buy, when you want to eventually have a tasty home-aged cake? Familiar dilemmas persist.

May 21, 2010

Old Favorites

It's that time of year I've written before, Chinese greens have for me become almost solely a seasonal pleasure. Buy them fresh, drink them quickly and enjoy the experience when it's most intense. So this morning we enjoyed a tea I've been delighted to drink every year for the past four years--Xu Fu Long Ya from Teaspring (m'lady never seems to tire of hearing me ape the pronunciation sound clip offered on Teaspring's page for this one; any cheap laugh I can get).

It's nice to have old favorites to return to, especially when you never know what nuances are going to be prominent that you didn't pick up on last year. Likewise, my music choices lately have been in the comfort zone--something like 20 new albums that I haven't listened to yet, and what do I choose? The Band, which reigns supreme in terms of play count in my music library. So many layers...lately I've been most acutely appreciating Robbie Robertson's metamorphosis as songwriter--from the heavily Dylan-influenced Music from Big Pink, coming into his own as a slightly academic channeler of America's past on The Band, to Stage Fright, when the pretense of the first two albums' fictional characters gets all too real as he becomes the tragic chronicler of his bandmates' descent into the substance abuse and self-destruction. It's tough to watch (listen) as Richard Manuel's angelic voice shows more and more the effects of alcoholism, especially as he sings Robertson's ironic songs that detail the price of fame, trading his soul for musical ability and hollering "oh, you don't know the shape I'm in." And that's not even mentioning the parallel paths Danko and Helm were on, or Garth Hudson as the impassive sentinel, silently watching it all go down.

If only green tea were as multi-layered as The Band. That's not to say it isn't immensely enjoyable--limiting my consumption certainly makes me very excited for the new harvest every year--but I try not to expect too many facets out of those emerald spears. Xu Fu Long Ya falls into the "legume" category of Chinese greens--snow peas and beans are what fill my nostrils (not literally, of course, then it'd be pretty hard to breathe) when I crack the bag. The flavor does match the aroma pretty closely--the first infusion is my favorite for this year's tea--it's got all that legume flavor and just a hint of tart bitterness that quickly washes sweet. Since I don't keep a stock of Chinese greens year-round, my brewing skills are pretty feeble. By the time I figure a tea out, my 25g are all used up! This year's Long Ya seems to require longer infusions to maintain its characteristic flavor--otherwise things turn generically green. It does manage to produce more than five decent infusions even with a longer steep time, though, so it's just a matter of treating it properly. I know at least one tea correspondent to whom I've recommended this tea (hope you enjoy it B), but I'm always quick to recommend Teaspring for their selection (Long Ya and a number of others are teas I haven't seen anywhere else). Other faves I have to anticipate--Yang Yan Gou Qing's velvety mouthfeel, the modest legumey delights of Zhu Ye Qing, as well as Dong Ting Bi Luo Chun and Wu Niu Zao from Jing Tea Shop. It ain't easy being green.

May 16, 2010

Sugar in the gourd

What an exciting couple of months it's been. Up until a couple of weeks ago I'd been slaving away at finishing the recording project I started in November. Toward the end things got quite busy--long hours recording, mixing and writing some notes about the lyrics for my facebook music page. In so many ways the process has been amazing--it's the first multiple-song project I've actually finished since 2005, it's been a great opportunity to catch up on the material I've written since 2006 in attempts to get more current, and it went well enough that I'm planning to do a bit more recording and release a full-length, professionally-produced CD later this summer. Between music, work, Mandarin class, running and enjoying the occasional gorgeous spring Seattle day in Discovery Park, I've had precious little time for gong fu tea. In some ways it's been great--I made it through April with nary a tea purchase to be had, which is always easier on the pocketbook. On a more personal level, it felt good to relax my tea obsession, which at times over the past three years has eclipsed my supposed 'passion' for music and become a sort of crutch, diverting my interest and energy while some health issues prevented me from being able to sing (long, long story). Diving deep into this project reminded me where my most intense fulfillment comes from--when bringing the recordings to fruition I honestly could barely have cared less about tea and the sessions I took were more out of necessity than true attention (can't work with drowsiness or a headache!). So, I'm glad to have achieved more balance in my interests--I celebrated the end of my project goals by polishing off the 50g of 1970's Guang Yun Gong pu-erh that I special-ordered from Jing Tea Shop in October. It was certainly aged to full maturity, but not as complex as the 60's Guang Yun Gong I've had from both Hou De and Nada Cha/Essence of Tea. The sessions were always very pleasant, relaxing and good drinking and brewing experience--after all, you can't really make claims or assumptions about the age-ability of young pu-erh if you haven't experienced mature aged pu-erh, right? I'm always happy to expand my minuscule portfolio of aged pu-erh experience with another tea, especially when I can get ahold of 9-10 sessions worth to understand the tea better.

In addition to the aforementioned activities, I also briefly vacationed in Barbados. Not a lot of tea drinkers in Barbados, although the lingering British colonial presence (now often in the form of lily-white or lobster-red tourists) undoubtedly means that there's some leaf on the island. My recent traveling MO has been to bring along my gourd and some yerba mate--it involves far fewer accoutrements than gong fu and allows me to enjoy a beverage that I rarely drink these days. I once spent a summer painting houses in Walla Walla, jacked up on mate listening to Captain Beefheart, Love and John Fahey, so mate's earthy sweet flavor and potent caffeine buzz always takes me back. I'd love to hear a Chinese or Taiwanese tea aficionado describe the qi of yerba mate--it's certainly not subtle when you drink out of a 2/3 full gourd.

Now I'm looking forward to the spring offerings--Dancong, Bi Luo Chun on the way from Jing Tea Shop, a few Chinese greens including a favorite--Xu Fu Long Ya--from Teaspring, and eventually a wee bit of Taiwanese gaoshan, Essence of Tea cakes, and some fresh yan cha...and that's just the fresh stuff! Hopefully I'll be back soon with some ideas I've had slowly brewing--it's been longer between posts than I'd prefer, but I'd rather post infrequently when I actually have something to say than just to keep up appearances. What have you been drinking lately?

March 18, 2010

A storage experiment


I had a fun little time yesterday breaking up a couple cakes for storage in some recently-purchased yixing containers. Though I've heard from a number of online retailers that you can store pu-erh in yixing jars, it wasn't until recently that I heard a couple of really intriguing accounts about the specific effects that just a few months' storage in clay jars can have on pu-erh: the tea will become rounder, smoother, and a lot mellower in flavor, I'm told. Now that I think about it and have had another look, I have to give Bret at Tea Goober credit for mentioning this a long time ago--sometimes I have to hear things from a few sources before the skeptic in me can be persuaded, though. Plus, I hadn't actually had someone explain to me until recently the exact effects of yixing jar storage.

The yixing jars come from Golden Teahouse. It's been a while since I've ordered from them, but they had the best prices I could find on smallish yixing canisters. As it turns out, they're actually pretty small. I didn't measure precisely, but they're probably only 300 ml at the most. It's not too big of a deal, though--it just means I don't have to invest as much tea to fill up the container! Also interestingly, although I ordered 2 of the same product, the jars have slightly different clay colors: one is more on the purple side and the other is redder.

To fill the jars I used the Zhong Cha Big Leaf 90's bing and the 90's unwrapped brick from my Skip4Tea purchase. The main reason I got all excited for this experiment is because the supposed effects of yixing storage are exactly what I want for these two teas--I don't consider either of them mature yet, and they both have enough harshness that they aren't especially pleasant to drink. If the jars can accelerate the aging in the short term and take the edge off the bitterness (and hopefully the smokiness, especially in the case of the brick), then these teas could become pretty good everyday pu-erhs without waiting several years. Since I'm not overly enamored with them, it won't break my heart if the experiment doesn't produce life-changing results. The really fun part is that I've still got plenty of each original cake left over, so comparison will be easy. I think 3 months is a reasonable time frame, so we'll check back then. Anybody out there have any experience with yixing pu-erh storage in the short term, or more interestingly, the long term?

If this works out well, I've got a few teas I'm more excited about that could use a little aging acceleration--it would be nice to have a few more teas in the rotation so I'm not drinking up the expensive stuff quite as fast! For now, the thing I'm most excited about isn't tea but--you guessed it--music. Maurice Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé has been bouncing around my brain, speakers and headphones the past week. I'm attending a performance at the Seattle Symphony tomorrow night and I don't think there's another piece of classical music I'd be more excited to hear live (ok, maybe Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, but Daphnis et Chloé is longer, and it's got a full choir for goodness' sake!). Ravel is often overshadowed by Debussy when it comes to the impressionist music movement of the early 1900's, but for my money it doesn't get any better than Ravel's ballet--that swelling crescendo and the whole Lent section has got to be 4 of the most gorgeous minutes in music history, as far as I'm concerned (my neck is tingling just thinking about it). It's a shame how many people could sing John Williams' Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park themes from memory but have never heard one of the pieces from which he has continuously borrowed so heavily in all its glory. *Ahem,* Tea! (Maybe I need to start another blog...)

As for the blossoms, it's hard to believe how early spring came this year in Seattle; probably about a month earlier. Reminds me of the almost laughably melodramatic "The Birds" from Peter Hammill's solo debut Fool's Mate. There was much better work to come...despite the fact this early spring brought blossoms too early for Chinese greens, the weather has at least remained nice enough that the blossoms have lingered awhile without being hailed off of their trees.

February 27, 2010

Big Fun with Three Liu An Teas

I've been on a real late 60's/early 70's Miles Davis kick lately--the spacey Big Fun was a perfect companion to the head trip I received from tasting three different Liu An teas this afternoon.

Liu An is a tea about which I have a lot of questions. You don't see it very often online, and I've seen it variously lumped in with green tea, pu-erh tea and black (hei) tea (i.e. Liu Bao). I've heard it's pan-fired like green tea, but I've also heard it's cooked like Liu Bao or shu pu-erh. Since it's nowhere near as popular as pu-erh, there's very little consolidated information to be had. In cases like this, it's usually best to learn what you can with your mouth (and other senses, of course).

I got ahold of 3 Liu An samples--none is purported to be less that 10 years old. Starting on the left we have a 1999 Liu An from Yunnan Sourcing, a 1995 Sun Yi Shun Liu An from Hou De (this tea has been sold out for a very long time; I received a sample in a recent tea swap), and a 1980's Sun Yi Shun Liu An from Essence of Tea.

What really prompted this comparison (besides the fact that I haven't really reviewed any teas on here for a while) is that I recently received the '99 sample and, after trying it once or twice thought, "this is pretty good, it seems nearly as aged-tasting as the '80's tea from Essence of Tea." The only way to really know for sure is to try them all.

Of the three teas, the '99 example is the exception in most ways--the leaf profile appears larger than the other two, it's not really compressed (though that's probably just from being broken up for sampling), and the flavor and aroma are distinct from the other two teas. After a quick rinse I smelled the leaves--a rather crayon-y wet clay smell--I decided to give another rinse! A bit more of a tea smell this time, but still that strange earthy clay note, which I don't remember from the other times I've tried this tea. A few rather long steeps later (I only used 3g since I was doing a handful of teas) and I've got the impressions I need--tartness, a receding hint of grass cut too soon after the rain, a wee bit of bitterness, and a touch of musty storage taste. Not bad, and certainly a hell of a lot tastier than the youngest Liu An (2004) I've tried, which I would consider totally undrinkable. After about the second sip I was already feeling the qi all over my face, washing back and forth across my eyes. Two more teas to go, yikes!

The '95 example's appearance evidences a bit more humidity in the storage--a frosty coating on the leaves, and a pleasant (to me!) musty aroma. The aged Liu An teas I've tried remind me of very specific basements from my life--I think the strength of this sense/memory connection is part of what makes me return to these teas almost compulsively. The flavor of the '95 is pretty different--actually more bitterness, with more of a storage taste and with a thicker mouthfeel and much darker, richer liquor. This tea tastes like it needs more time in the same way that a 15 year-old pu-erh does when the bitterness is one of the only youthful characteristics left. Enjoyable--when I use up the last 5 grams I think I'll be giving shorter steeps which should bring out more sweetness and a very pleasant all-around session. This tea tastes a lot more aged than the '99, but actually not a ton younger than the '80's tea, aside from the bitterness.

I've had several sessions with the '80's Liu An from Nada Cha/Essence of Tea, and I've enjoyed every one of them. If not for that tea, my Liu An impressions would have ended with the 2004 tea I tried. The storage taste is reminiscent of the '95 tea but different, perhaps because of more age or perhaps because of the particulars of where they were stored. The bitterness is actually present still if the brew sits, but it's less assertive than the younger tea. Body is great, and the tea gets sweeter in the ensuing brews--almost as good as an aged pu-erh, but definitely different. Eventually it gives up the same kind of sweet stewed taste that comes from long steeps of aged sheng pu-erh. I wonder how much of the similarity between the '95 and the '80's teas comes from the fact that they're both Sun Yi Shun Liu An, whereas the younger tea is not.

A gander at the wet leaves does little to alleviate questions about the processing of Liu An--the '99 looks like a mix of "cooked" and raw leaves, the '95 looks quite uncooked, and the '80's looks either mixed, storage-darkened or (likely) both. Interesting--after dumping out the '95 leaves I was just certain that the '99's processing meant it could never turn out like the two older teas, but then the '80's tea looks cooked and tastes more like the '95. At $26.10/450g basket, the '99 isn't a very expensive gamble so I think I'll be seeing what happens with at least one basket. I'd be interested to know the original price of the '95 Hou De tea for the purposes of value hypotheses. The '80's tea is expensive, but less so than its sheng pu-erh contemporaries, and I think a better value than some. To return to the original impetus for this comparison, I have to conclude that the '99 tea really isn't close to being in the same league aging-wise as the '80's tea, or even the '95 tea. A candidate for aging, perhaps, but not a fully mature tea.

By the time I finished with the '80's tea my head was swimming so much I decided to sit down for a few minutes and just relax--I haven't been so qi drunk in quite a while. Luckily a bit of food settled things down. Drinking aged tea can feel so different! If you've tried aged sheng but not Liu An I recommend sampling the '80's tea for a similar but distinct experience. Time to try and find some other Liu An teas to try.

February 24, 2010

Hot or not?

Today was a great day--two tea packages arrived, one from Hou De and one from Jing Tea Shop. Packages from China are always nerve wracking, and I usually spend several days expectantly looking out the window for the postman before the package is actually delivered. This one didn't arrive as quickly as some, but today my wait was mercifully cut short.

There are a few items worth mentioning between the two boxes, but I'll start with this little miscreant. After my last delightful Jing Tea Shop purchase, not only did I shrug off the vestiges of my "too cool for more teapots" attitude, it seems my mental disorder was only exacerbated. I asked SEb at Jing if he could find me a decent duanni pot, and this is what he came up with, along with a nice little story:
Yesterday, I went to visit a good friend who is a Yixing national craft master and I found that he has made a xiao pin of one of his latest series of 3 teapots for which he was recognized, they even printed stamps with them. It is a 100ml, made of good duan ni, pours really well and has very nice details. It will be good for black tea, especially cooked pu erh.
I almost always go for traditional, unadorned pot shapes, and it's been quite a while since I've had a bamboo pot in the collection. At first look, I really wasn't sure what to make of it--the leaf details, spout and handle are familiar from other bamboo pots, but the body shape is totally out there--the large body section resembles a separate pot that is tilted backward (in the picture below you can kind of see that the weird outside shape is totally evidenced on the inner surface as well).

Now that the pot is in-hand, I'm still not sure what I think about the aesthetics. The clay is nice and tender, though, and rather high-fired as well, so I don't doubt it'll make some tasty tea. I'm also excited to see how the bright yellow clay seasons--in just a month's time my two newer pots have shown dramatic changes from seasoning, and this one's probably even more porous. I've shown pictures of the pot to a number of tea-drinking and non-tea-drinking friends and opinions have been split on the imperfect shape--probably the best reaction was from my girlfriend. I don't remember the exact phrasing, but the word "poop" was a key descriptor.

So, I'd like to propose a simple survey on the aesthetics of this pot--hot or not?

February 12, 2010

Domestic Partnerships

I've been living in sin for over two years....with Wuyi yan cha. A quick glance at my yixing ware will make it abundantly clear--there's no other tea I drink as often or as much of. When I first set out to try and "understand" yan cha/yen cha, one of the first things I learned was that you've really got to pack the pot to make a good one. We're talking a 1/2 to 2/3 full pot, or about a gram for every 10 ml of water, at least for my tastes. Straight off, yan cha became a daily morning tea for me--you can't put that much tea in pot and expect it not to be really strong, and the afternoon tends to be the time I prefer lighter teas for stimulating relaxation, rather than an ass-kicking reveille.

One of my favorite parts about spending so much time with a tea genre is that you start to learn things that you never would have if you were only drinking it every three or four days. For instance, steeped-out yan cha has a pretty distinct flavor. Packing the pot helps delay this, of course, but if you're going all the way with a tea session it's going to happen eventually. At first, I'd lose my interest in a tea as soon as the insipid flavor would start to creep in. After a year or so, though, I figured out that there's usually several more good steeps left in a tea after it tastes insipid for even a minute-long steep; you just have to increase your steeping time by much larger increments, which can be hard to get used to, since packing the pot necessitates extremely short infusions at the beginning. Additionally, if you let the tea cool off a bit in the cup, the insipid flavor quiets down and the tea's flavor notes subtly make themselves known. Whereas before I probably would have tossed a pot's leaves after a couple insipid steeps (maybe thinking they're "not meant to be drank"), I'd now say I actually enjoy the later, lighter steeps as a tasty part of the tea session's evolution and an opportunity to catch a range of flavors that actually isn't present in the beginning.

The other thing that's changed for me is the utilization of broken leaves. I'd originally attempt to cherry-pick only the hugest, most complete leaves when filling a pot, avoiding broken or smaller leaves in attempts to save the flavor. After a while I realized that the pots made from big whole leaves tended to come out lighter and more one-dimensional, evolving and finishing quickly. By including a range of leaf "conditions" into the pot, you get a pot of tea whose flavor 1) shows up immediately, because of the broken leaves, and 2) stays more balanced and even throughout the tea session--the small pieces give out their flavor faster, and they're adding "late session" notes to the whole leaves' "early session" notes after only a couple of infusions. Think of it as a form of single-tea blending. I've read a couple of methods online for how to "load" a yancha pot, crushing leaves at the bottom, adding broken pieces, then topping with whole leaves. While I personally wouldn't get quite that meticulous (I don't usually feel a need to crush the leaves myself), these methods certainly get at the principle of making a balanced pot of tea. I have a canister that I dump my "unusable" yan cha fragments into, to be later used for teapot-raising. I dipped into the canister recently to season my new pin zi ni pot and realized that quite a lot of the leaves in the mix were plenty large enough to be used in a pot of tea (by my present standards) but a couple of years ago they were just too small! These days it's mostly powder that goes into the can, unless there's just not enough left to make a decent pot of tea. If I like a tea enough, I'll even find myself brewing only the broken pieces at the bottom of the bag, though this often gets tricky with steeping times and gauging how much is appropriate for a pot.

Finally, and probably most predictably, my definition of what a "good" yan cha is has changed quite a bit. At first I endeavored to understand the trademark characteristics of the more well-known teas (Da Hong Pao, Tie Luo Han, Shui Jin Gui, etc.). After a couple years, though, I don't really feel confident in my ability to pick cultivars out of a blind tasting--I think processing and specifically roast level account the most for flavor differences, so now I mostly drink just for enjoyment. And roast level has become an important criterion--I was originally excited by "light roast" or "qing xiang" yan cha--they taste very different from both traditional yan cha and other oolong types. After drinking quite a few, though, I feel like light roast can limit the range of characteristics available to a yan cha (put more bluntly, light roast teas can eventually be boring). Today, my ideal yan cha is one that is ideally stored to rest for 1-5 years before the fire and tea taste are in harmony. More commonly available on the market (aside from explicitly "light roast" teas) are teas that are roasted just enough to achieve that sort of balance for near-immediate consumption. The problem is, if you don't consume the tea immediately, the resting in a canister or bag isn't good for it--what initially tasted complex and balanced can go flat in just a couple of months. Not a very happy tradeoff, methinks. I have stashed a few of these teas away to see what will happen with a good 10 years of storage, but my expectations aren't very high.

I liken this type of roasting to shu vs. aged sheng pu-erh. Shu offers an "instant gratification" solution to the demand for aged sheng, which takes time and patience. However, it's just not the same--to do something right, it sometimes takes a requisite amount of time, and if you cheat, the results aren't the same. Now shu pu-erh is an established tea type with plenty of fans, and maybe so also will "medium" roast yan cha. I drink these teas daily (non-stellar yan cha is way better than no yan cha), but none of them are as satisfying as a more traditionally-processed yan-cha--something dark, with a time-subdued roast and flowers or fruit in the finish--not up-front--and a thickness that only comes with traditional processing. Not necessarily something that takes 20 years to be drinkable, but a tea that includes rest as one of its processing steps. It's becoming more difficult to find examples of these teas online, and even if you find one it's not guaranteed to be great. I've long promised myself not to become one of those curmudgeons who's always talking about how "tea was better before," but when you see something you love start to become scarce, it can be hard not to feel a little bitter. I've actually almost run out of yan cha for the first time in a while, so it's on my mind--I've got a couple teas on the way that veer on the more traditional side, so I've got my fingers crossed for a few satisfying sessions.

So, that's my ever-changing live-in relationship with Wuyi yan cha. The tea blogs have been a bit quiet lately---anyone out there want to share the fruits of any epiphanies about a tea with which you've spent a long time in close quarters? Oh, and happy Chinese New Year!

January 26, 2010

Good--New Acquisitions.

It had been about 4 months (not very long, but it seems like a long time) since I'd purchased any teaware. Sometimes impulses take over, though, and something has to be done.

These two pots came from Jing Tea Shop, one of my standby vendors. I love this seller because they've always had solid quality, but since I've started purchasing from them they've continued to get better--their Dancongs were really great this spring, they always have a good yen cha selection (now with lots more info for each tea), they often offer aged pu-erh, and they just recently added a "Xiao Pin" section to their yixing shop. Alright! Having spent some time dabbling in the expensive and baffling world of vintage and antique yixing, I actually now feel more confident purchasing recently-made yixing ware. The primary selling point for antique yixing is often clay quality. The most obvious example is zhuni, which is probably best bought as antique, in my opinion. With other clays, though, I've found that I can't detect as much difference between recent and old examples to make it worth the 3x or more price increase. What I've found is that volume capacity, lid fit, pour, and general performance are more important to me than age or a modicum of clay quality improvement. Even if a pot is Qing dynasty and gorgeous zhuni, if it's 200 ml and has a leaky lid, it'll drive me crazy and end up sitting on the shelf.

The first pot is an 80ml 1980's pin zi ni shui ping. What strikes me about this pot is the crispness of the edges. In hand it feels so sharp and precise. It operates flawlessly; quick pour, dripping only when vertical, and the lid hole doesn't get filled with water too easily. I also really like that the lid is completely flat; it'll be interesting to watch how it seasons differently from the other pots I have. Both pots have interesting chops--this one has a bunch of extra characters in addition to the central stamp, a style I haven't really seen before.

The second is a 2006 Ben Shan lu ni shui ping. It's actually the first really traditional-style shui ping I've owned, which is fun. The clay on this one is really cool--a deep forest green which, because of the "yao bian" intentional over-firing, has taken on a bit of a red tint on the outside and a much redder color on the inside. The color looks different depending on the type of light that's hitting the pot (you can see the difference even in the three pictures here); it looks really cool in sunlight, but unfortunately the clouds rolled in by the time these pictures were taken. This one is not quite as ideal operationally; though the lid fits very well, there's a bit of a drip when pouring. I don't mind screens in a yixing spout (especially for fragmented teas like pu-erh and yen cha), but I'm not entirely sold on the efficacy of a bubble/golf ball style; I think it might slow down the pour a bit and could contribute to leakage. If the biggest problem with a pot is a little stream running down the outside of the spout, I don't really mind too much, since I often just stick the pot into the fair cup to empty it. Another interesting chop--this one is dated. Since this one is dated 2006, it's pretty believable (who would forge a date on a 4 year-old pot?), but I wonder just how reliable this type of thing will be in 20 seems like the forge-ability of the original artist's chop is still the issue.

Aside from the re-awakening of my pure collector's spirit, I've been looking for a back-up yen cha pot (aside: The pot that titles this blog, despite now being beautifully seasoned, has had a couple of injuries and now has a hairline crack in the lid. I'm heartbroken at the prospect that someday soon it might be unusable, but it's made me a lot of good tea) and a smaller pot for sheng pu-erh, so I've had fun over the past 2 days testing out teas in these pots. I don't usually detect a huge difference between clays, but these two pots have surprised me. Both produce a rounder mouthfeel than more dense clays, and the lu ni seems to soften and round the most. The high notes in the flavor are better-preserved by the pin zi ni, and the walls retain heat a bit better. I think either could make good yen cha or pu-erh, but the pin zi ni pot's faster pour will be more conducive to making yen cha. I'm going to spend some time seasoning the lu ni pot to see how its effects on flavor turn out, but I think it might have a future as a good aged sheng pot. Either way, I'm excited to have some well-working tender clay yixing pots back in my collection; up until now my most porous pots have been hong ni, which is only porous compared to zhu ni!

January 22, 2010

Western Culture

I'll start at the middle: for the sole purpose of wordplay, I'd been planning title this entry after Henry Cow's final studio effort, Western Culture. The first of their studio records to not feature their characteristic sock cover art, the album's composition credits are split solely between organist/saxophonist Tim Hodgkinson and bassoonist Lindsay Cooper. Side A is populated with Hodgkinson's angular, mathematically dissonant works--the structure is imminently logical, but your average pair of ears will find little to recognize harmonically, melodically, or even structurally. Hodgkinson writes like he understands music on a completely intellectual level--intervals and combinations of notes on paper, every choice a deliberate logical decision. Cooper's side B, no less complex, exudes a totally different different energy. Whereas Hodgkinson understands composition, Cooper clearly feels composition in a way that no amount of learning or study can approach. Every choice in her pieces exudes class; dissonance and atonality make their appearances, but it's always organic--the ideas evolve naturally, there's an indescribable flair to the music, and we even get an occasional glimpse of--ahem--fun. Lindsay Cooper obviously grasps composition on an intuitive level in a way Tim Hodgkinson clearly doesn't.

I decided to title this post "Western Culture" because of a recent addition I made to my tea paraphernalia--a triple beam scale. I've put off getting a scale for quite a while--I feel like I've caved in to the influence of Western tea culture, which is always prodding us to add science into our tea preparation--time our tea with electronic timers, measure each serving with an electronic scale, and use precise water temperature for every tea we brew. For me, drinking tea is in many ways a rejection of these kinds of modern "necessities"--how can I relax and approach a tea on its own terms if I'm constantly fretting over parameters of mass, temperature and time? But, I do have to admit that scales can come in very handy--if I've got a 10g sample I want to split in half, if I've got a tea that cost me $3/gram and I don't want to waste any by eyeballing portions, if I'm trying to figure out how many pots' worth of a tea I have left, or if I'm portioning out pot-sized amounts like I did recently to send out samples to several people. Luckily, I managed to compromise--this scale isn't electronic, and it's got a dingy vintage vibe. I've got a friend who picks through thrift shops and it took him less than two weeks to find it after I told him I was in the market for one--$20, a nice break from $50-$60 for a newer Ohaus-style scale. One of the cool (but kind of irrelevant) things about triple beam scales is that they measure mass rather than weight, which is relative to gravity. Pretty much all electronic scales measure weight, which can actually slightly vary depending on where you are on the earth (some places actually have more or less gravity); but since triple beam scales balance a specific mass (1g, 10g, .10g) against whatever you're measuring, they're accurate regardless of gravity. Thank god! If I ever find myself preparing tea on the moon, my Welch triple beam scale will produce accurate results when all electronic scales would fail!

So, yet again, why all the talk about obscure music when this is supposed to be a tea blog? The short, unfriendly answer is "It's my blog and I can write about whatever I want to." The longer answer: After considering the scientific vs. the intuitive (gong fu, if you will) in tea preparation, I realized the title "Western Culture" is much more apt than I originally intended; the concept is mirrored in the compositions on Henry Cow's Western Culture. How much of the joy of tea appreciation is lost when we get caught up in scientific accuracy and precision in the brewing process? Conversely, can we really expect to remove all science from tea preparation and expect every pot to turn out phenomenally? I'm sure we all strike a balance between both ends of the spectrum, which is why Western Culture works so well as an album--of course, having Fred Frith on guitar and Chris Cutler on drums doesn't hurt. I'd be interested to hear how much science you use when it comes to tea preparation.

January 9, 2010


I've been hinting at this since early December, so here it finally is. I took the plunge and ordered a few pieces from Malaysian vendor, Skip4Tea. Now, I certainly don't believe that I'm the first person to find, know about, or even order from Skip4Tea (if you feel like wading through the inefficient morass that is TeaChat, there's a few posts on there), but I suspect a lot of people have checked it out and opted against ordering because a) The website doesn't contain a whole lot of English, and what's there ain't exactly articulate or in-depth, and b) Pretty much none of the teas are offered in sample form. But, it's been a while since I've branched out and tried a new vendor and part of me was hoping for a lucky draw: some reasonably mature-tasting sheng pu-erh at a reasonable price. Here's what I bought.

ZhongCha "Big Leaf" 90's 357g bing ($88), so-named because of the large leaf that's embedded along with the nei fei on the top of the bing. This is the only bing I ordered, and I'd also describe it as the most humidly-stored of the purchase. A look at Skip4Tea's photos will give you an idea; there's a bit of a colorful dusting on the leaves--nothing to be too afraid of though. The first time I tasted this tea I used a low leaf/water ratio just to have a taste and only rinsed the leaves once and was surprised by a bit of fruitiness in the flavor profile that I've not tasted in any other pu-erhs before...Malaysian storage? The second time I gave a more traditional portion two rinses and brewed as I regularly would, and the flavor profile was a bit more standard. Humid storage taste in the first few brews (less so than, for example, Nada's HK-stored Grand Yellow Label, which sadly has the ability to turn my stomach a bit), a diminished hint of smoke, and pretty strong flavor. Decent aging progression, I'd say (though an exact date wasn't given), but I wouldn't classify this as mature by any means. With these pu-erhs labeled simply "90's" I tend to assume an implied "Late," since most sellers would be happy to persuade you into believing a tea's age is older rather than younger. For a late-90's tea, I'm satisfied with the aging progress and after tasting it a few more times I'd say there's a chance I'd buy more, since the price isn't obscene. I need to also note that I'm not especially familiar with Zhong Cha as a discrete brand (as opposed to Zhong Cha as a government labeling system imposed on the major factories after the Cultural Revolution), and since this tea is 90's I'm not sure if it's Zhong Cha brand or another factory's tea wrapped in the usual Zhong Cha wrapper, nor is my Chinese anywhere close to being able to make any sense out of the wrapper. I'll bet someone out there can easily educate me with regards to the differences between Zhong Cha factory and Zhong Cha labelling--I'd be much obliged.

ZhongCha "Aged Tree" 80's Square 300g Brick ($137). This was the most expensive item in the purchase, as well as the oldest and most disappointing. This tea looks and tastes remarkably like Nada's 80's loose "big leaf" pu-erh (albeit a little more complex and flavorful); giant, brittle leaves, really sweet liquor. In the Nada description for that tea he notes it's made from yellowed leaves that are picked out of the blend for the main cake production; this is only the second tea I've tried with these characteristics, but I'd hazard a guess that it's the same thing, since the leaves don't look or feel like your standard pu-erh, and they don't expand much at all when brewed (a sketchy factor in my book). Really, though, this tea tastes pretty mature--sweet, smooth, no smoke or bitterness, it's just not really what I've come to look for in aged pu-erh. I think I'll actually enjoy it as I gradually pick away at the brick for casual sessions, but I wouldn't buy another one (especially when the Nada loose pu-erh is so much cheaper, even if it's not quite as good). As it happens, I couldn't buy one if I wanted to--the last one sold out sometime recently. No biggie.

Xiaguan "No Wrap" 94 100g Tuo $33. Not sure how to verify that this tuo is Xiaguan or from 1994, since there's no wrapper, but it turned out to be a decent performer. The harshness and smoke have mellowed a lot--they're both there in traces, but not enough to detract from this tea's maturity, which is fair. Humid storage for this one as well, but not near as much evidence in the flavor (or to the eye) as the Zhong Cha bing. Compared with the NadaCha budget model 90's tuo (sorry to keep comparing to NadaCha teas, especially if you haven't had them--last one, I swear), I'd say this one wins out in complexity and fortitude, although it's less mellow. I'm not a huge 100g tuo cha fan, but this tea is ok. There are still 49 left (as of this writing), so I could see myself getting a couple more for cheap thrills if there's nothing else pressing my interest. Not a bad value considering the price and agedness, but there's something about small tuo cha that doesn't push my thrill button very often.

Unwrapped Raw 90's 250g Brick ($63) Finally we have this standard rectangular brick. No wrapper, but no pretenses about factories or age other than "90's," to which the thick, dark liquor and mellowed leaf color would seem to attest. This tea is smoky, but surprisingly the smoke is almost totally unoffensive. Although I wouldn't rate this kind of smokiness highly in a "mature" aged pu-erh, it doesn't bother me a whole lot here because the tea has a ways to go any way you look at it, and because there's quite a bit I like about the rest of the package. So, the liquor is dark, the flavor is really quite full, and the tea goes on for countless infusions. The smoke gradually decreases as infusions continue, to the point where it's merely second fiddle to the solid tea taste. Despite its flaws, this tea might be my favorite. Though I feel the same about tight brick compression as I do about tuo cha and iron bing compression, something about this tea seems right for aging potential. It's nice to see a tea that seems really strong in spite of its aging, especially one whose primary flaw is only a smoky flavor.

Unrelated to the teas themselves, Skip4Tea has pretty good customer service--they responded quickly to my inquiries in understandable English and packed the tea well. What I don't understand, though, is their order fulfillment--I ordered at the very beginning of December and the tea didn't ship until the 16th. Why, I don't know. Aside from not being able to sample the teas, shipping is the other main issue with Skip4Tea--you only have one option and it's not cheap. These 4 teas cost about $50 to ship. Granted, it took less than a week to arrive when it finally did ship, but I think most of us would happily trade a couple of weeks for $20-$30 in shipping fees. I'll also note that Skip4Tea offers a whole lot of more recent pu-erh vintages, and if you peruse the site you'll probably find that the prices look really quite reasonable by western standards. If you're interested in less aged pu-erh than I've been talking about here, the prices only get lower.

To sum up, the brick and the bing are my top teas right now. If I were to order more, it would be these teas, or maybe some yixing; they have a few pots that aren't half bad looking, but it's a slippery slope when there's little to no description and the site is only a middleman for other sellers. Tough to verify authenticity on something so expensive. For this quality and vintage of pu-erh, I'd say Skip4Tea is about as good a source as any, but it's a whole hell of a lot riskier than the other vendors we're all used to. Admittedly the adventure of trying a risky place was part of my motivation with this experiment (and to try and maybe provide a bit of helpful info)--because of its particular flaws, Skip4Tea isn't going to supplant my favorite tea vendors or probably even return to to the top of my purchase list within the next few months, but overall I'm satisfied with the experience and met my other main goal, which was not getting completely swindled! If anyone's interested in trying these teas for fun, shoot me an email and I'll be happy to send out some samples; you have to try them all though!