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.
Marzo: il mese di Hinamatsuri
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