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!
The Tea Masters guide to brewing Oolong tea
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