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!


Bret said...

Yep, your earning your stripes. Pushing past those washed out brews and finding that there is much more to be had is something that's realized through experience.

David said...

I personally love to let the leaves steep a whole night after a tea session.

I find the cold brews your getting after that extremely pleasant, especially with wuyi yan cha. But I do this with all kinds of chinese tea (except maybe dancongs which tend to become a little bitter.)

Nice blog.


Zero the Hero said...

Hi David,

I do overnight steepings with pu-erh sometimes, which can be pretty rewarding. It's always an issue for me to heat the tea back up, though--I'm not that into room temperature pu-erh! I'll have to try some yan cha overnight, I'll bet the flavor is better than pu-erh when cold.

Thanks for reading!

David said...


I have a question if I may. I am a beginner with yan cha but I like it. I am now considering to buy a dedicated teapot. People tend to tell me to buy a zisha teapot for this tea, but I see you are using a zhuni.

As you seem to know a great deal about this tea, could you tell me if you have tried a zisha before and what you are thinking about using one ?

I thank you in advance.


Zero the Hero said...

Hi again David,

I just discovered your blog; great photos and interesting thoughts. It gives me an excuse to brush up on my French, which never was good and has become quite rusty. We both like Jacques Brel!

As for your question, I'll start by saying that there aren't any teas I know a great deal about--there are just a few that I drink a great deal of! I've tried a few different pots for yan cha, including zhuni, zisha and duanni. I've recently semi-retired my zhuni because it's taken some damage and I've gone back to zisha/pin zini (as seen in the post below).

I've had a couple Taiwanese acquaintances scoff at my use of zhuni for yan cha, but I've always gotten good results with that pot--good high floral notes and not overbearing roast flavor, with great heat retention. After using my new pin zini pot for about a month I think it's pretty comparable--less dense clay, so it doesn't stay hot as long in later infusions, but the porosity of the clay rounds out the mouth feel a little more. The high notes and floral aspects seem to still come out just fine despite the more tender clay, and it is seasoning very quickly, which also helps with the concentration of flavor.

Although I don't think there's anything wrong with either one, I'd probably recommend zisha--it's probably the best all-around yixing clay because it balances porosity with accurate flavor presentation, and you probably want a little porosity when it comes to yan cha. Additionally, it's almost always cheaper than authentic antique zhuni.

I do enjoy challenging the common advice, though, because sometimes it turns out I don't agree after trying it myself! Yan cha in a zhuni was one successful example, though the common advice ends up being sound at least as many times as not. If you ever end up with a zhuni, you should try it out with some yan cha and see what you think. Hope this helped a bit!

David said...

I am very grateful for this detailed response and yes it helps me a great deal.

As it happens, I do have a zhuni teapot, a very good one actually, and I am very pleased with the way it treats the least roasted yan cha. But I have to admit I am disappointed with my medium to heavy roasted ones, their charcoal taste is too much for me, hiding and spoiling everything.

That is why I am looking for something which would help me with that. And anyway I would prefer to put my new zhuni on puerh, tea I drink far more often and give my yan cha a cheaper teapot (for instance a teapot from Stéphane of Teamasters I think.)

That's a wonderful zisha you've got here. I like its look.

Speaking of challenging the common advice, I tried a very delicate yan cha recently, a bai yi kuan. The seller told me to brew it at 85°C which surprised me at first, cause I was always told water for yan cha is to be very hot. But as it happens he was right. I have tried this temperature for another light-roasted yan cha and am very pleased with the result. So I wanted to ask you, do you lower temperature sometimes ? Maybe it is a common thing I wasn't aware of but I can't be sure without asking.

At last, thanks for what you say on my blog. I do love Jacques Brel a lot. He is my favourite text singer. A very pleasant way to brush up on your french I think !


Zero the Hero said...

Is your zhuni the one pictured in your most recent post? That's a lovely teapot! Do you have a good source for good tea and yixing teaware in France, or do you have to mostly look elsewhere? Based on your blog list it looks like there are a lot of French tea fans out there--not too surprising knowing the French appreciation for fine food and wine.

I like my new zisha too, and it wasn't too expensive either--Jing is a good source, that's for sure. Stéphane has some good pots from time to time too. About lower water temperature--right now the only oolong I usually use cooler water for is Dan Cong, which helps a lot. For Bai Ji Guan (Bay Yi Kuan) cooler water could probably help too--I generally just use a lot less leaves than with a roasted yan cha, which seems to help too, but I'm getting less and less interested in really green yan cha so it's been a little while since I've experimented. It sounds like the water temperature trick is helping though--it's always good to experiment.

Serge Gainsbourg and Françoise Hardy are my other favorite French singers--not very obscure, but good music. Can't forget Gong either, but only a few members were French...any recommendations?

David said...

My zhuni is indeed the one you see in my last article. It is a 1920's Yu Zhu from Zhao Zhuang mountain. A very nice teapot. It will be shown with more details later on.

Acutaly, we do have some very good tea suppliers in France. One of them, la maison des 3 thés, is famous for having the biggest stock of chinese tea worldwide.

It is a very high-end quality shop with very expensive but very good teas. They produce their own puer cakes which are supposed to be top quality. They also select the best dan cong and yan cha.

That is what is told. I have to say I cannot compare with other suppliers cause it is easy for me to go there and buy them things after having tasted it on location, than risking buying on the internet. They do provide a very good service.

My opinion is that they are a bit expensive, sometimes very very expensive, especially for teapots, old Yixing are between 800 to 1000€...

But they propose hand made taiwanese teapots which are cheaper (250-400€) and excellent ! I do own one. You can see it on my blog, the little black one.

Unfortunately, they do not have a website or a catalogue. They are very secretive about their products and prices which cannot be found outside the shop itself. I honestly don't know why...

Here in France or in nearby countries, you can order buy phone. That is all.

A lot of french tea lovers say that they prefer their products to other suppliers. I for myself try to keep an open mind and more curiosity. But I haven't tasted puer yet as good as the ones they sell. But it is my taste.

For wulong, I prefer Teamasters. Stéphane provides a great service and I do love his teas a lot.

I have yet to try Imen's dan cong to the ones from la maison des 3 thés which are very good but expensive too.

I haven't tasted yet teas from JTS or Houde. I will receive soon samples of puer from Nada. I will see.

So to sum it up, yes, there are a lot of french tea lovers and we do have some pretty amazing tea shops in Paris (there are others than la maison des thés, called m3t between bloggers.)

Thanks for your advice for teapots. I will this time order a zisha from Stéphane but I'll keep having a look at JTS if I want another one (we always want more, don't we ? ^^)

I am glad to have told you about temperature, cause I have never tried lowering it for dan cong. I will try next time.

As for french music, if you are already listening to Brel and Gainsbourg, you are listening at the best from my point of view. Do try and find all the albums from Gainsbourg. He has done a lot of different things, all of them are great. If you are looking for music like Gong's, it is not going to be easy but I can give you some names...

Thanks again.