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!