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?